Ethan Hawke never intended to be an author. "Writing was never a conscious choice," the 31-year-old actor-director turned novelist told WW. "I mainly started because I want to keep pushing myself into different situations." Hawke is best known for his roles in movies such as Dead Poets Society and Gattaca and, most recently, for his Academy Award-nominated performance in Training Day, but his new novel, Ash Wednesday, is actually a sophomore effort. In 1997, Hawke published The Hottest State, a coming-of-age tale about a young actor in New York City. The first book was dismissed by critics as poorly written and thinly veiled autobiography, but now Hawke has come back with a second novel covering topics outside his immediate comfort zone.

Ash Wednesday's protagonists, Christy and Jimmy, display the muddled Gen-X combination of emotion and apathy that Hawke glamorized in Reality Bites. Fleeing his Army post in New York, Jimmy tracks down Christy, who is pregnant with their child. Their subsequent journey reveals the evolution of their relationship as they rocket across the southern United States toward Texas. "Jimmy and Christy are two sides of who I am," Hawke says, "the über-masculine and the über-feminine." While they certainly may be that (Jimmy is prone to violence, Christy to tears), Hawke's characters are also too one-dimensional. Christy spends much of the novel superficially grappling with her existence and death, never fully demonstrating a developed thought: "One of us, Jimmy or I, would die first. Maybe it would be me. My credit card would be canceled." Jimmy also falls into the predictable traps of drug use, endless profanity and conflicted responsibility.

Although this lack of character development is distracting, Ash Wednesday's bigger problem is its choppy prose. From the beginning, Hawke alternates long, descriptive sentences with short punchy, phrases. In a more talented author's hands this technique can strengthen the plot and characters. In Ash Wednesday, however, it slows the reader and ends up making the novel sound like a bad Catcher in the Rye knock-off, with Jimmy headlining as a thick Holden Caulfield (Hawke cites J.D. Salinger as a literary influence).

Oddly, too, the novel is written in dual first person, switching between Jimmy and Christy--something Hawke didn't originally plan. "I realized after I started writing that the book's meditation on marriage and its value was best told through the distinctive voices of each character," he says. "It really reflects the subjective nature of truth." Regardless of the author's intent, though, the novel often reads as though Hawke couldn't decide which character should tell the story and haphazardly chose to write from the perspectives of both, detracting from the story's progression.

As far as Hawke is concerned, his foray into writing is simply an extension of his directing and acting: "I've learned that acting is sort of like a wheel that other [artistic] spokes fit into. Writing and acting are really so similar." More importantly, he emphasizes that he doesn't want to be labeled one thing--although he acknowledges that some of his other artistic interests probably suffer because of his experimentation. "Sometimes I wonder, why distract one's self with so many pursuits?" he says. "If I dedicated myself to acting, maybe I would be a really special actor. But I feel like doing all these things gives me balance." Lukewarm novels like Ash Wednesday, however, make Hawke come off more as a dilettante than a Renaissance man.

Ash Wednesday

by Ethan Hawke (Knopf, 256 pages, $22.95)

Ethan Hawke will read from his new novel on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

Powell's Books at the Guild Theatre, 829 SW 9th Ave., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. FREE