John Haskell -When I was a kid, I’d see a movie, and whoever the star was, I’d want to be that person

John Haskell, Out of my Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

"Whenever I read a Gary Lutz collection, each story peopled with isolatos whose skewed views of relationships, intimacy, and sex, make for droll monologues and biting critiques, each short short a kind of sprint, I find myself asking what it would be like if those moods were sustained, those bold characterizations explored and awkward conversations extended to a novel’s marathon length. Reading John Haskell’s Out of My Skin, I think I may have found a kind of answer. With his extended observations, his microscopic scrutiny of his own fleeting thoughts, Haskell’s forlorn writer reminds me of Lutz’s own company of dusty fusspots. Out of My Skin is Lutzean without the syntactical eccentricities, and with deeper explorations of consciousness and a storyline reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s conjurings. Think Being John Malkovich meets wry and lonely writer languishing in Lost Angeles.
Out of My Skin features a narrator obsessed with stars from the silver screen, a fascination that results in a questioning and fragmenting of identity. Leaving New York City to live in L.A., after a botched affair—or, rather, “social entanglements” he doesn’t want “to replicate”—the melancholic writer (also named Haskell) interviews a Steve Martin impersonator for an article he’s writing, and ends up imitating the imitator. This Haskell then both suffers and revels in what turns out to be a novel-length identity crisis. After watching the impersonator transform into the famed comedian at a party full of initially disinterested kids and their bemused parents, Haskell reflects:
'People who have the gift of letting go of themselves enjoy the gift because, by letting go of who they are, they can afford to let go of what doesn’t work. And the trick, it seemed to me, is to have something waiting, another self or another way of being, something, so that in the moment of letting go, in the sensation of that sense of nothingness, there’s something to hold on to.'
And after deciding to, as he describes it, perform an “impersonation of someone’s impersonation of someone I didn’t even know,” Haskell discovers that “because I was this other person, an entirely new world was possible.” His explanation is as individual as it is strange:
'This is what I call the realization-that-something-is-necessary-but-not-knowing-what-that-is stage. A necessary thing is any action that makes sense of a given circumstance, that follows naturally what came before, like water flowing down a stream. If you can imagine water, cascading over rocks, actually thinking about something, then what that water is thinking about is the necessary thing, and the beauty of the necessary thing is that it’s true to itself, and by being true to itself, it knows exactly what to do.'
As Haskell develops his mimetic technique, his mind jets off into no small number of inquiries, speculations, meditations, and reveries:
“If necessity is the mother of invention, then the father of invention is possibility.”
“The desire to collect art begins with attraction… A work of art is meant to have an effect, and it does, and the original desire changes from simply wanting to be near that beauty to wanting to possess it, wanting to be so close to it that some of the beauty rubs off.”
“Most of us profess a love of freedom. In theory, freedom is admirable and desirable, but how do you make it happen? How do you live, moment to moment, responding honestly to the unknown moment unfolding?”
Out of My Skin is unquestionably brimming with metaphysical, epistemological, and psychological asides and glosses. It also overflows with humor of the deadpan, sardonic variety. It’s also a thoroughly engrossing love story, one that never lapses into sentimentality. And, while Haskell manages to get away with large doses of philosophical inquiry, he also convincingly allows the first-person narration to inexplicably, yet seamlessly, flow into an omniscient point of view. Just before walking into the patio where Jane, his lover, is, the narrator relates that “Jane thought to herself that the past is the past and the world does what it wants to do.” And later in the novel he goes into her mind for pages: “Jane is feeling a numbness in her mind, and because that numbness is spreading to her body, and because she wants to feel something other than numbness, she agrees to go.” This heightened awareness and these sudden moments of omniscience are never explained; but the narrator’s voice, governed by a slanted perception of things, is so convincingly drawn that the reader absorbs it with hardly a second thought.
But Haskell the character’s thoughts don’t languish in the mind; he also reflects on the body, on desire, on sex as “a kind of utopia” that “demands that something be different.” This man who claims he’s no “good at looking below the surface,” is able to see with incredible depth, scope, and clarity. He is, in fact, on a meta-physical quest. We find him “following the fruit of… desire which is love,” hoping that his lover’s “desire would influence [his] desire, and together [their] mutual desire would create a space for happiness.” And while he wants to “reach out past all facades of being,” ultimately he can only wonder, “How do you do it?”
I’m usually distrustful of epiphanic moments, but the sudden illumination near the end of Out of My Skin is an undeniable force, and that it is catalyzed by the seemingly mundane—a shriveled raisin!—makes it all the more irresistible. The set-up is marvelous: On a weekend day where nothing “meant what it normally meant,” Haskell rejects going to a bookstore because “the idea of reading symbols on pieces of paper seemed ridiculous,” walks past a tree and decides that “if I wanted to read something I could read the tree… not read, but see, in the tree, whatever I wanted to know about the world.” In a coffee shop, still in this reverie, he “hears music in the room… background music. Noise. And it mingled with the music of the noise of everything else.” I’m tempted to quote in its entirety what follows as it demonstrates Haskell’s range, his understated erudition, his effortless excavation of a man’s consciousness. Here’s a bit:
'And the thing that had once been a raisin sent sweetness into my mouth, and when I swallowed I could feel the sweetness of what was no longer a raisin, but was not something else, something transformed, and I could feel it seeping its way down my body and into my body, and I could feel it, in my arms and legs and brain even, the nourishment of it, the sweetness and life, and Man ist was man isst, I thought, and like an elixir coursing through my arteries, it was flowing through me, altering my blood and the cells that were fed by that blood, and I don’t know how long I sat at the table, but at some point I looked up and realized that yes, the world was still there.'
Out of My Skin is strange, moving, engrossing, and flows just like the cascading water the narrator had hoped his decision-making process resembled. Haskell’s novel is not merely symbols on a page, but is, like that tree he reflects on, a portal through which you can see whatever you want to see in the world; the book is, itself, a “necessary thing.” - John Madera

«John Haskell’s latest novel, Out of My Skin, is a surefooted yet deeply odd book about a journalist who decides to devote his life to imitating Steve Martin. The premise brings to mind the surrealism of films such as Being John Malkovich and the tarnished star worship of Mister Lonely, and indeed, Haskell’s story has a distinctly cinematic flavor. “When I was a kid, I’d see a movie, and whoever the star was, I’d want to be that person,” says Haskell when reached at his L.A. home (to keep things simple, no one pretended to be anyone else). But Haskell, the author of the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock and the novel American Purgatorio, has also laced his story line with a weirdly philosophical interrogation of the nature of identity. “It’s like a koan: Everybody says, ‘Be yourself.’ My book asks, ‘Just who is this self that I can be?’?”
For the author and his latest protagonist, that’s a thorny question. Out of My Skin is narrated by one Jack Haskell, a lost soul living in a Los Angeles motel, where he spends his time thinking about classic film noir and writing sporadic pieces of freelance journalism (one of his latest stories is about sharks). On a writing assignment he meets Scott, a Steve Martin impersonator who schools him in the quirks of his profession. Entranced, Jack soon follows suit—not as a job or a hobby, but as a way of life. He dyes his hair white and perfects the elusive Steve Martin walk. “I’d created what I called the art of continuous Steve,” Jack says. “Not being Steve for just a moment, but being a nonstop Steve.” Haskell says that he chose Martin not because he’s a great actor (he calls him a “diluted Cary Grant”), but because his exaggerated mannerisms and “middle-of-the-road normality” make him ripe for impersonation.
From there, Haskell pushes the book into increasingly disorienting epistemological territory. Is Jack still Jack? Is his pretending what we all do in our own lives, even though it can seem like madness? “It’s about presentation—how we not only present to the world, but how we think of ourselves,” says the author.
Out of My Skin isn’t all heady mind games. There’s a love affair of sorts. And Haskell peppers the story with spectacles and absurd situations, particularly in a scene where Jack finds himself at a “bathroom party,” nude in a shower with strangers. The real thrill of the book is its odd descriptions of the commonplace (particularly its sex scenes) and its stunningly broad cultural references. The plot is interspersed with ruminations on everything from Brecht and Brueghel to Marlon Brando and Cary Grant’s experiments with LSD. As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Haskell’s deadpan, obsessive voice is both tangible and unhinged, creating what you might call a tone of mundane insanity.
Distinctions between the author and his book’s narrator are intentionally blurry. Like his protagonist, Haskell recently moved from New York to Los Angeles. Like Jack, he is fascinated by the films that are discussed within the novel: North by Northwest, Detour and Sunset Blvd. “I wanted to have a sense of reality,” Haskell says of his decision to make Jack a skewed version of himself. “I wanted it to be as if it could have been this guy’s memoir—my memoir—about the time I went through this little period in my life, or in his life.”
Out of My Skin never really resolves the question of selfhood. In fact, Jack seems more sure of who he is—and what he wants—when he starts doing his wild-and-crazy-guy routine. Though Haskell-the-writer is wryly obsessed with pop culture and absurdity, he again turns to Zen. “The book is about who we are, and who we think we are, and those are the same questions that Buddhism gets at,” the author says. “What is the self? Is it my habits, my desires—or is there something beyond that, that isn’t part of the habits and personality of a person?”
Perhaps all of us are just impersonators—acting out some idea of who we are. It’s a big and possibly disturbing idea, but Haskell charges it with insight and absurd comedy. In fact, Haskell’s view is that Jack’s transformation is a liberating one. “Part of what runs through the book is the idea of paradise, of a kind of utopia, a belief that we can make something better happen,” Haskell says. Even if that requires a total makeover.» - Scott Indrisek

"Early in "Out of My Skin," John Haskell's strange and compelling new novel, the narrator-protagonist finds himself attracted to a woman and attempts to dispel his awkwardness by channeling Cary Grant:
"Her looks and her manner were easy and natural, and I liked her. And it's natural, when you like someone, to want the feeling reciprocated. And to facilitate that reciprocation, I sat up in the beanbag, pressing my shoulder blades deeper into my back, hoping a change in my posture would effect a reaction in her. ... I'd just seen a Cary Grant movie, and because Cary Grant, in the history of leading men, was someone I didn't mind emulating, I tried to act like him. I didn't talk like Cary Grant or do a Cary Grant imitation, but I tried to relax. And in that relaxation I became a little bit more honest."
This scene, like many throughout the novel, illustrates the paradoxical achievement of sincerity through imitation. That Cary Grant himself was an invention - created by Grant, who was born Archibald Leach, and the Hollywood studio system - further complicates the irony. But soon the narrator forsakes Grant for Steve Martin, with hilarious results.
His New York life stalled for reasons left vague, and so he has recently accepted a friend's invitation to move to Los Angeles and write about movies. His assignments are sporadic, only tangentially connected to movies. While covering a production of Brecht's "Life of Galileo," he learns that the lead actor, named Scott, makes his living as a Steve Martin look-alike. The narrator at first finds this pathetic, given Scott's ponderous remarks about impersonation and the fact that he bears almost no resemblance to the celebrity.
But the narrator grows increasingly intrigued. When Scott leaves town suddenly, the narrator briefly impersonates him. Later, he finds that putting himself in a Steve Martin mind-set, comporting himself like Steve Martin, although stopping short of blatant imitation, increases his confidence. He even dyes his hair white.
He begins to be Steve around his new girlfriend (she, of course, has no idea what he's doing). One night they are kissing in her apartment, on the way to consummating their relationship, and the narrator relates in his deadpan manner: "Walt Whitman famously said he contained multitudes, and I knew what he meant because as desire expanded in me, Steve also expanded."
The trajectory is inevitable: After allowing him to express himself more fully than ever before - the narrator proudly proclaims that he's developed "the art of continuous Steve" - the impersonation begins to take over.
The author takes what sounds like a gimmick and fashions a tour de force of comic timing and surprising emotion. The narrator charms us, though at times he frightens us a bit, as the line begins to blur between winning eccentricity and pathology.
Still, Haskell's narrator provocatively embodies the complex interplay between the real and the imaginary, recalling the sociologist Edgar Morin's description of cinema as a "personality factory." It would be too easy to read the narrator's travails in terms of stereotypical L.A. artifice and celebrity culture. For these celluloid emanations are no less "authentic" than the myriad of other elements that influence us, consciously or not, in our ceaseless act of becoming - the landscapes of our childhood, the posture of a grandparent, the fleeting impressions of a daydream, today's weather.
"Out of My Skin," a richly suggestive, deeply funny and elliptically philosophical exploration of identity, is one of the most distinctive American novels of recent years." - Gregory Leon Miller

"John Haskell has written a brilliantly muted second novel. Unlike most Los Angeles stories, there are no cocaine binges or trysts with model-actresses in Out of My Skin. Instead, there are dilapidated Downtown hotels and even an earnest conversation with a homeless man. Jack Haskell moves to LA from New York to start over (why else?). Through one of his assignments, he meets Scott, a Steve Martin impersonator. Jack begins imitating some of the more appealing aspects of the Steve Martin character in order to woo Jane, his love interest, but soon finds he is unable to act like anyone else except Steve. Eventually, Jack finds that his Steve act is getting in the way of his relationship with Jane and struggles to surrender it. Haskell is obviously aware of his departure from the popular portrayal of the city, so he sums up just about every Angeleno cliché in his “Alan” character, a swinging LA Times film critic, of all people, who has the swagger of a big shot Hollywood producer and is always trying to get Jack laid either by attempting to coerce him into a threesome in a hot tub or inviting him to a “shower party.” Haskell’s voice is restrained throughout, making the narrative one long deadpan monologue.
Despite its deadpan tone, the novel has a strange dramatic thrust. Haskell’s forte is making the most mundane happenings into cliffhangers: I found myself nearly squirming out of my seat when the protagonist jumped precariously from boulder to boulder on a walk with his love interest through Elysian Park. A number of these tense vignettes follow as the plot progresses: Jack braves a rope swing two stories up over a canyon, or, later, saunters uninvited into Scott’s apartment, only to find that he has mysteriously vanished.
While most authors choose to conceal allusions under the veil of character names or plot devices, Haskell expounds on them. The novel is peppered with meditations on various cultural references, mostly LA-set classic films, and stories about personalities from Hollywood’s golden age and beyond who are loosely related to his experiences. Readers are regaled with tales of Bertolt Brecht, Billy Wilder, Steve Martin, and others. Los Angeles, a city without any real urban planning or structure, is an ideal backdrop for Haskell’s sprawl of idiosyncratic anecdotes. A man trying to find himself in the big city and win the girl of his dreams is one of the most boring clichés in existence, but Haskell’s expert re-imagining of this tired structure is perceptive and layered. Out of My Skin is so blah in it’s blahness it’s fascinating." - Lena Valencia

“It’s funny how the body, having learned a way of being, doesn’t like to give it up. I was sure that being Steve [Martin] would make it easier to be with Jane, but often, in the actual act of talking to her, I noticed Steve sliding away. I would make an effort to go back, from my old self back to Steve, and I would go back and forth, and sometimes I got lost in my old self….Not only did I prefer Steve, I was seeing my old self as a hindrance.”
In this "autobiographical novel," author John Haskell tells the story of Jack Haskell, an excruciatingly self-conscious young man who has given himself one month to “test the waters” in Los Angeles and see if he can find a job. Unsure of himself and constantly obsessing about the impression he is making on the people he meets, Jack is looking for a job in journalism, preferably writing stories about people associated with the film industry.
It is not surprising that Jack, who does not have any confidence in his ability to deal with the real world, is an expert on old films who feels most comfortable associating with actors and acting. In Los Angeles he quickly meets Scott, who is starring in Bertold Brecht’s Galileo, and supporting himself by being a Steve Martin impersonator--an actor acting as another actor. Soon Jack is imitating Steve Martin’s walk—and acting like Scott acting like Steve Martin. Eventually, Jack applies for a full-time job as a Steve Martin impersonator.
Although his friend Scott has kept all his Steve Martin gear in a separate “office” downtown so he “did not confuse who he was with who he was trying to become,” Jack throws himself completely into his role as Steve Martin, and “because I was this other person, an entirely new world was possible.” Eventually, “The effort of being Steve didn’t seem necessary anymore. It was happening on its own.” Jack is transformed.
When he meets Jane, a writer of young adult fiction whom he would like to know better, he finds that his Steve Martin role allows him to make overtures with a confidence that the real Jack Haskell has never felt. As the relationship progresses, however, Jack realizes that he must understand who he is—without relying on Steve—if he is ever going to have a full—and real—relationship with Jane or anyone else.
Within this relatively simple framework, author John Haskell writes a fully realized and rich novel in which every detail adds to his themes of fantasy vs. reality, pretense vs. integrity, and expediency vs. personal courage. As Jack Haskell the character comes alive for the reader, John Haskell the author creates dozens of parallels between the insecure Jack, and the world of drama and actors, compressing them in this relatively short novel to give depth and universality to what might appear at first to be a rather superficial story about a superficial and undeveloped character. Every detail counts here. Scott, for example, is playing the role of Galileo in Brecht’s play, and Galileo, an astronomer who promoted the idea of the earth and planets revolving around the sun and not the sun revolving around the earth, knew his theories were right. Still, he was forced by an Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church in 1633, to renounce what he knew to be true, or face torture and death. He recanted—and spent the rest of his life living a lie.
Several films echo as motifs throughout the novel. The 1945 film Detour is being shown on small TV in Scott’s house when Jack visits for the first time. In this film, a young piano player hitchhikes across the country following a lounge singer with whom he is in love. During the trip, the owner of the car, ironically named Charles Haskell, dies, and the hitchhiker then assumes his identity. Sunset Boulevard (1950) reminds Jack of his relationship with Jane. In this film, William Holden, an unsuccessful scriptwriter whose car is about to be repossessed, flees, with the repo men in pursuit. Making a sharp turn into a seemingly abandoned old mansion, he discovers Gloria Swanson, a silent-era film star, who offers him a place to stay, while he pretends to be in love with her. Steve Martin’s Roxanne (1989), a film paralleling the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, also involves play-acting, and figures in the plot.
Jack is also fascinated by the transformation of the real Archibald Leach into the actor Cary Grant, a motif that echoes throughout the novel. He is equally obsessed with Charles Laughton, a remarkably insecure man who played the role of Galileo in the 1947 play.
Jack’s intense introspection increases as he attempts to become a real man in a real relationship with Jane, but he cannot be sure if she really loves HIM, and not his Steve Martin persona. “By becoming Steve and then becoming not-Steve, I’d become a nonentity,” he believes. As the author, through Jack, reveals the conclusions of the various films which have been “playing” throughout Jack’s story, he prepares the reader for Jack’s final actions.
One of the best constructed novels I’ve read in ages, this is a study of a young man of extreme sensibility who is looking for ways to deal with himself and his limitations. Some readers may become impatient with Jack’s extreme self-consciousness and self-indulgence, but for those who love carefully realized, often humorous, novels in which every detail fits and adds to the universality of the themes, this novel is a satisfying pleasure." - Mary Whipple

"It seemed like such a good idea: a writer decides to become a Steve Martin impersonator, but then it goes a little too far. And in theory, that’s what this book is about. But in theory, we’re all an infant’s dreams, and when he wakes we cease to exist.
More or less, this reminds me of a less able version of John Fante’s Bandini books. It’s about an East Coaster trying to find themselves on the West Coast. More specifically, about finding one’s self in L.A. Now, this I can appreciate, as I’ve lost my mind, soul, and sense of humor while drifting through these streets. It’s a town that can sandblast you. It’s a town where nobody is who they seem, and you can get caught up, because there’s always an audience. You are always being watched and observed by someone here. It’s a strange animal.
Haskell’s book follows an author — sometimes a screenwriter, sometimes a journalist? — as he decides to embody Steve Martin. Admittedly, this is a strange person to imitate, because Martin isn’t an outrageous guy — he plays one on TV. Twenty years ago. The author meets a girl, kind of loves her, and they have a relationship. And he tries to be an actor, kind of maybe. There’s never really anything specific going on, which makes this very L.A. There’s no immediacy about this city. Events occur, but time exists in a strange vacuum. For example, a mutual friend was visiting another friend of mine (star of Yeast, Amy Judd). I told her to come see me. She asked how far away I was. This is not an easy question to answer someone. Rarely do you respond to this with actual physical distance; at the time it was about three to five miles give or take. Normally, you answer by saying the time it would take. But in L.A., it depends on what time of day it is and in which direction you are traveling. I told her, “It takes either 15 minutes or an hour and a half.” This is a true but not helpful statement. This is L.A.
Haskell’s novel hints at being devious and creepy, but never fully takes the plunge. The author (not Haskell, but his narrator, who is also named Haskell) hints at this pseudo-psychosis, that he is consumed with the becoming of Steve vs. his not-Steve persona. It could have been this very effective insight into someone gone mad. There’s almost a point where you think the character is going to become a serial killer. But this instead sort of casually blows over, and we’re left with a droll, dreary relationship story. It’s not even a particularly effective existentialist piece. On the plus side, it’s short, barely breaking the 200 page minimum requirement. I’m still kind of curious to check out American Purgatorio by Haskell, but this was a breezy disappointment." - Brian Prisco

"In 1923, the Italian writer Italo Svevo published "Confessions of Zeno," a novel in which middle-aged businessman Zeno Cosini undergoes psychotherapy to quit smoking. What Cosini loves is that each time he quits, he feels he has been given a new life, a fresh skin. He loves this feeling so much that he becomes addicted to quitting. In a wonderful review of Svevo's work written in 2002, the critic James Wood called Cosini a modern Don Quixote, referring to the comic-pathetic nature of both novels, in which "the great illusions of freedom that the self hoards" were made plain; "vanity and the sad prospect of an imprisoned self acting as if it were free" being the actual human condition.
In his first book, the story collection "I Am Not Jackson Pollock," and his novel that followed, "American Purgatorio," John Haskell has messed around with the idea of the imprisoned self. It makes sense that, as a performer and a writer for the theater, Haskell would explore the possibilities and limits of identity. Referring to the stories in "Jackson Pollock," in which the writer inhabits Pollock, the pianist Glenn Gould, various Hitchcock characters, Topsy the elephant and Joan of Arc, Haskell has said his books are meant to be read aloud, performed.
"Out of My Skin" fits squarely in the comic-pathetic, imprisoned self literary lineage, with one small problem: It's not exactly a novel. A novel is part monologue, part marathon. The protagonist plummets through space, transformed, exhausted by the unfolding of events. He grows, mutates, reproduces, has revelations, changes his behavior or stays the same, but does not leave his skin. He is trapped, like all the rest of us, in his self. The novel is a frame, not a mask. It is the skin around the organism, the story.
In "Out of My Skin," the unnamed narrator moves to L.A. for a month. The book could not be set anywhere else: "What was so great about authenticity? I'd come to Los Angeles to be something different, and whatever failures and defeats, whatever unfulfilled expectations I was leaving back in New York, that was one thing, and this was an opportunity." He writes a story for the Los Angeles Times on an actor named Scott who earns his living impersonating Steve Martin. Interviewing Scott, the main character learns how to walk like the actor; he dyes his hair white and begins a relationship with a woman named Jane. He feels most comfortable with Jane when he acts and thinks like "Steve." He's happy to get rid of his old self; that's part of the reason he's decamped to L.A.
After the honeymoon (with Steve) wears off, he finds himself rebelling against not just the prison of self, but the prison of his adopted self. He feels like the motorcycle rebel in "The Wild One" played by Marlon Brando, who, when a townsperson asks "What're you rebelling against," says, "Whaddya got?" He flails between identities. He thinks of leaving L.A., heading out to the desert, but thinks, "Los Angeles was my desert."
The book has Haskell's signature tone -- a struggle for precision that can sometimes feel like a writing exercise -- combined with a kind of polished insouciance. He's going to parse his way through the surface of things down to the bone, no matter who's watching or how long it takes. The beautiful thing is that he never gets there. There is no resolution, no certainty, just a determined plodding, which is somehow never dull.
Revelations animate novels; they give the writer something to pivot on; their utter absence in Haskell's writing feels modern. Here we are, no religion, no single meaning, just a hall of mirrors that is reality.
At first, needing a box to put it in, I thought "Out of My Skin" was more essay than novel. Haskell adds a love story, which gives the book a shape and a frame and a place to end, but it is secondary to his thinking about the role of the self and the nature of identity. This book is a rebellion against the novel, even as it inhabits the form." - Susan Salter Reynolds

«John Haskell’s first book, a collection of stories published six years ago called I Am Not Jackson Pollock, was a weird little work that almost seemed to take fiction in a new direction, by being based in fact. Each piece was a psychological exploration of a real-life character (a person or an animal), a flat, haunting, matter-of-fact description of the problems of being that character. For instance, when Mr. Haskell described the fate of Laika, the first dog in space, it seemed like the saddest thing in the world.
In his new novel, Out of My Skin, matters of identity are again at hand. A writer named Haskell (like the Edmund MacDonald character in Detour, if not the author) moves to Los Angeles, hoping for a fresh start. Through a writing assignment, he meets a guy named Scott who works as a Steve Martin impersonator. Scott doesn’t much look like the actor, but he’s nailed down much of the affect, and can sort of mind-alter into Steve Martin enough to convince other people. Haskell finds this both pathetic—in a moment where the author reveals some of his narrator’s true personality, Haskell is berating poor Scott about the silliness of pretending to be Steve Martin—and fascinating; after Scott hangs up his Steve Martin suit coat and bails for Tucson, Haskell promptly goes about impersonating Steve Martin himself. Not for money (though he tries that), but simply because he wants to be someone else.
As a version of Steve Martin (he even dyes his hair), Haskell manages to get into a relationship with a girl named Jane, who has a mysterious past and a bean bag chair, in which the couple drink tea. But being someone else doesn’t always make things easier. One afternoon, on a walk, Haskell is preoccupied with his vocation:
Not only did I have the Steve Martin walk going on… but Scott had told me to imagine that my eyes were like ray guns, that a beam of light was shooting out of them, and I didn’t know what I looked like, but Jane was looking at me—sympathetically—as if I was having some kind of problem. And the problem I was having was that, although I was enacting the physicality of Steve, the person who was doing the enacting was me. I couldn’t quite get into the full Steve groove because there was another groove. I was real, and the groove of who I was was real, and yes, I could picture Steve, with his joie de vivre, walking down the street with a beautiful woman, but because of my idea of reality, I couldn’t step into that picture.”
But it gets easier. And things go all right for Haskell as Martin; he picks up some work—not as a Steve Martin impersonator, but as a serial killer on a cop show and, later, a monster in a video game. (Again, a flash of the real Haskell.) Eventually, though, Haskell begins to resent his alter ego, and seeks to get back to his true self (for this, he shaves off his faux gray). The question is whether that person is really preferable to Steve Martin, because all indications point to Haskell, the character, being kind of a jerk.
Like John Haskell’s stories, and like his previous novel, American Purgatorio (2006), which is about a man who sets off in search of his missing wife, Out of My Skin is short on action and long on thought—some of it deep and complicated, and some of it fun. There’s something simple about the questions raised—how do we know our realities are the same? Who are we? What makes us us?—but Mr. Haskell’s writing is weirdly mesmerizing, which lends to his work an enticing air of profundity.
There’s plenty of strange, thinky fiction out there, but most of it is so crazily ambitious and convoluted. John Haskell’s is deceptively lazy. And that’s why, though it will only take a few hours to read, Out of My Skin will linger with you long after.» - Hillary Frey
John Haskell, American Purgatorio: A Novel (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2006 )

"A man scrutinizes what it means to live and love during a cross-country search for his missing wife in a prickly, penetrating novel by the author of I Am Not Jackson Pollock. After stopping for gas on his way to his mother-in-law's house, the narrator, Jack, emerges from a convenience store to find that his car and his wife, Anne, are nowhere to be found. After making his way back home, Jack discovers a U.S. map marked with an apparent route; imagining that this will lead him to his wife, he buys another car and sets off. Haskell twists the essential mystery—what happened to Anne?—into a meticulous, probing investigation of one man's desires, fears and coping mechanisms, a tactic that somewhat slows the narrative but results in existential chewiness. As Jack makes his way to Kentucky, Colorado, California, he encounters odd but sympathetic strangers, many of whom are likewise journeying, most of whom aid him and some of whom seem like reflections of himself. The cool, intentionally deadened prose can make for difficult reading; that Haskell turns the notion of the unreliable narrator on its head not once but twice will redeem everything for some readers and make others feel tricked. Chapters named for the seven deadly sins (in Latin) signal Jack's path through pride and sloth, through a world that feels both banally familiar and utterly alien—an American purgatory—in this strange and compelling novel." - Publishers Weekly

"A man's life changes forever when he walks out of a gas station and into a convenience store. His waiting wife has vanished, and the narrator's life takes on a new quest--to find her.^B So begins Haskell's first novel, and the nameless narrator begins a winding journey in search of his lost wife and for his former life. From a leafy block in Brooklyn to the beaches of Southern California, he searches desperately, and his journey is both heroic and heartbreaking. His peregrinations are linked to the seven deadly sins, and he encounters a strange cast of characters until he arrives, brokenhearted and broke, on the beaches of San Diego. What he discovers along the way is that memory is often selective and revelatory, that strangers are not always kind (but they often are), and that life-changing experiences (good and bad) can be just around the corner. Haskell's short story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollack (2003)^B received praise, and his first novel is equally laudable." - Michael Spinella

"Generally, when reading for pleasure, I give a book twenty pages to catch my attention. If it can’t do that, it goes flying across the room until it slams against the wall, the dresser, or the dog. It is fortunate, then, that I had to read all of John Haskell’s American Purgatorio in order to review it, because the novel begins to get interesting on the eighth line of page 21. That’s when the narrator, Jack, starts describing a circuitous series of thought associations leading from a large-breasted stranger to a used Nissan Pulsar to his missing wife, Anne, who recently disappeared from a New Jersey gas station. The passage is funny, unexpected, and compelling, and, reading it, I suddenly felt not only that this character was a unique human being but that I might be willing to spend a whole book with him.
Anne’s disappearance and Jack’s strangely opaque reaction to it consume the first twenty pages. After his wife and car vanish from outside the gas station, he wanders home and mopes around for a few days, waiting for her to come back. She doesn’t. His expressions of grief get increasingly tedious: “[A]lthough I anthropomorphized the dumb green garden, it was my own dull gnawing that was gnawing me.” Finally, Jack discovers among Anne’s things a map showing a cross-country route to the west coast, and he reasons that by following that same route in his new secondhand Nissan Pulsar, he might find her.
The jacket copy for American Purgatorio promises “a detective story and a meditation on the seven deadly sins,” but I would like to have a word with the lackey who wrote that description, because the novel manifestly delivers neither. If you squint at the premise, you can sort of make out a detective story, but you’ll have to squint so hard the skin peels off your forehead before you see anything besides the Latin section titles that directly relates to the seven deadly sins. Yes, characters get vain or jealous or lustful from time to time, but I can’t think of a decent novel where they don’t. For 232 of its 239 pages, American Purgatorio is simply a story about a spaced-out, introspective man stumbling through his grief, and for the last seven pages, it is suddenly a story about something else. To elaborate would be to unfairly reveal Haskell’s ambitious closing gambit, which is not quite a gimmick but not quite not a gimmick, and as ambivalent as I am about its success as a narrative strategy—and its consistency with the rest of the book—it certainly deserves respect.
Jack sets off west, following Anne’s map. (The question of whether she would have left the map behind if she was really planning to take that route never occurs to him.) His ostensible purpose is to track her down, but this goal pretty quickly turns into an afterthought. Encountering various odd characters along the way (and repeatedly declining their sexual advances—except, inexplicably, in the case of an old man who asks to fellate him), Jack makes his way from New York to San Diego, eventually ending up as a homeless beachcomber. By the end of his journey, fragments of a strange memory have begun to rise to the surface of his consciousness, and this memory will prove more revelatory about the fate of his wife than any external clue he discovers.
During Jack’s long cross-country trip, Haskell steadfastly refuses to write the kind of linear, investigative plot that his premise demands. Jack misses his wife, but he doesn’t really search for her or explore clues that may lead to information about her disappearance. For example, when he sees a car that he is pretty sure belongs to Anne, he just looks at it and says “‘Anne… Anne.’” Later, when he meets people who seem to be the car’s new owners, he doesn’t bother to interrogate them about it.
Another time, when a hitchhiker claims to have seen that same car a few miles back at a rest area, Jack attempts a U-turn and gets into a physical altercation with a traffic patrolman, who then starts chatting with him about fly-fishing. “[A]fter about a half hour of this relational negotiation,” narrates Jack, “he unlocked the handcuffs, gave me a warning, and then”—implausibly enough—“he let us drive away.” By then, Jack has simply forgotten about searching for his wife’s car. His own acknowledgement of this lack of motivation (“I realized I hadn’t been looking for Anne, not very diligently”) comes far too late to cure it.
Haskell’s insistence on writing such an anecdotal, dreamy narrative is in some ways admirable, and certainly it makes for a more intriguing and unpredictable story than a straightforward detective yarn would. Although he runs into too many New Age-y types for my taste, a number of Jack’s experiences (like helping sink a dead cat in a lake, or palpating a giant tumor through a drunk man’s distended belly) have an eerie power that is almost worthy of Jesus’ Son, the terrific Denis Johnson book that also happens to feature a drifting, zombified narrator. Still, eschewing a plot driven by causality allows the reader to be indifferent about what happens next, meaning that every page, every sentence, has to carry its own weight by being inherently compelling. Quite a few scenes in the middle section of American Purgatorio fail to do that, and as a consequence, the novel would benefit from being 40 or 50 pages shorter.
Indeed, a good deal of content between page 50 and 150 should have been cut—like the part where Jack hangs out for a while with some annoying hippies in a yurt. As far as I’m concerned, any novel in which the protagonist sees, enters, or even thinks about a yurt cannot ever join the canon. This rule holds true for all fiction written in English or any modern Romance language. (Novels written by Central Asian nomads are, I guess, exempt from yurt restrictions.)
Jack’s character, though, is so hermetic, so determinedly introspective, that most of the time he hardly seems to notice where he is. Early in the book, he describes himself as “good at making adjustments,” which is only true in the sense that his numbness to external stimuli excuses him from having to adjust to them. He is not a reliable narrator, either, although we don’t realize how spectacularly unreliable he is until the novel’s closing revelation. That conclusion—the proverbial “surprise ending”—casts doubt on everything precedes it, and it causes such a cataclysmic shift of orientation for the reader that far more justification is required than Haskell seems willing to provide. The new information he presents at the novel’s end seems to violate the coherence of the world he has created. We’re left wondering how that character could’ve really done that if this is true. Unless maybe that character was really… Or perhaps…
Haskell is mostly unhelpful with such questions, but despite the unavoidable credibility problems his ending creates, I cannot deny that it offers an authentic emotional catharsis—and that it does make a kind of intuitive sense. Your average “surprise ending,” is a shabby, colorless Band-Aid slapped on a half-dead animal (see: the collected works of M. Night Shyamalan), but a closing twist can sometimes succeed if its creator manages to make it feel both unexpected and in some way inevitable. Haskell does this. Though problematic, his ending is also bold and surprisingly affecting. Still, that’s only in the last seven pages, and because the novel has no plot in the traditional sense, the success of American Purgatorio before then hinges almost entirely on its narrator’s voice, which is at various times boring, maddening, fascinating, and unexpectedly moving. Much the same is true of the novel as a whole." - Nick Antosca

"American Purgatorio is John Haskell’s first novel, after the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock. It’s a novel that effectively subverts notions of genre classification. It packs small emotional punches, and while often compelling, it’s an ultimately uneven journey into the darkened heart of its protagonist, Jack.
Jack’s journey begins when his wife, Anne, vanishes from a New Jersey gas station. Haskell sets this up in the first sentence: “I was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened.” Following a fruitless search for Anne, Jack returns to their apartment in Brooklyn. Unsure what to do, post-traumatic acts overtake him: he tears up his garden, for instance, with uninhibited force. Realizing he is paralyzed by grief and uncertainty, he begins his journey.
This set up is near-identical to George Sluizer’s 1991 film, The Vanishing whose first scenes depict a woman disappearing while at a roadside service center. In that film, the main character, over the years, fails to recover from this loss, a failure that eventually results in his demise. I adore this film; it was difficult not to think of it through the first few chapters of this novel. The film presents the horrific scenario of the disappearance of a loved one, and refuses simple exits from personal disturbance and grief. The Vanishing depicts the banal horror of this modern tragedy most effectively.
American Purgatorio also celebrates the banal, but quickly sets itself apart from Sluizer’s film. The structure is divided into seven chapters based on the seven deadly sins, and what starts as an efficient thriller takes a sharp turn to become an account of Jack’s transformative personal ride. He buys a car and sets out along an outlined roadmap he finds in a pile of Anne’s belongings. This map, he thinks, holds clues as to her whereabouts. He travels, stopping in Kentucky, Colorado, and California, analyzing his varied states of mind as he encounters other Americans. His logic is loose and open: he lets the world “tell [him] what to do”.
This is the novel’s the philosophical core. Jack is initially driven by uncertainty (and the indefinable sense of loss), but then lets the “world”—and the people in it—draw him along. In this sense, he lets go of rationality. As this happens, he ruminates on what his desire for Anne means, and just what constitutes their happiness together. His cross-country journey is his attempt to find a place in his post-Anne world. By the time he reaches California, he is stripped, literally, to his core.
The journey, abstract and undefined, can be frustrating. Haskell uses an internal monologue device to draw the reader into Jack’s experience, but the monologues tend to be vague and inconclusive. Understanding Jack becomes increasingly difficult. Haskell’s deadpan writing style suffers from a lack of generosity. The reader is forced to guess at the intended meaning of passages and scenes. Character resolution, too, is hard to come by.
Eventually, though, the significance of Jack’s quest becomes clear. He notes: “Clouds, people, buildings, laughter, darkness. It all happens, and then it’s gone.” These final thoughts are exquisite, resonant, and rescue an elusive book.
Early in the novel, Jack describes himself as “good at making adjustments”. American Purgatorio is his trip into hell when forced to make the most drastic of adjustments—coming to terms with the loss of his life partner. Haskell’s book portrays alienation and redemption unevenly, a road novel that travels an uneasy path towards release." - C.W. Thompson

"We don't know why Anne is missing. The narrator hints that something terrible has happened to her: perhaps the ultimate nightmarish combination of abduction, rape and murder. What we do know is this: Anne and husband Jack were driving on New Jersey's Palisades Parkway when they stopped at a gas station/convenience store for snacks. When Jack came out of the store, Anne and their car had vanished into the unrelenting river of traffic.
Jack, who narrates the novel, explains, "This is the story of a man who .. . I won't say I was never stuck, but I was good at making adjustments. That was my specialty, adjusting to circumstances -- I prided myself on this ability -- and so the first thing I did was convince myself that nothing had happened, that Anne would suddenly appear. And when she didn't appear I began looking for her."
This is the opening scene in John Haskell's unforgettable "American Purgatorio," a literary affirmation of fiction's potential to go beyond mere scene description and plot line and tap into the deepest roots of human motive. Haskell is the author of the 2003 short-story collection "I Am Not Jackson Pollock" and he is ambitious. "American Purgatorio" is not always an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. Sections are divided into the Seven Deadly Sins and even the sins are difficult to decipher. Haskell decided to cloak them in Latin obscurity. Sloth becomes acedia, pride superbia, and envy invidia. Whatever.
But make no mistake: This is not an ordinary novel. This is a complex tale about a modern-day Siddhartha, who pushes through the membrane of loss to an almost anonymous makeover. "As human beings," Jack muses, "we have an idea of who or what we are, and we like to keep that idea intact." "American Purgatorio" is about what happens when that idea unravels.
After Anne's disappearance, Jack finds a well-worn U.S. map in Anne's desk drawer. She has drawn a line from New York City to Lexington, Ky., to Boulder, Colo., and finally to San Diego. Thus begins Jack's transformative journey from New York to the continent's edge in search of not only his wife, but in pursuit of the meaning of life without her. No surprise that the vehicle he drives is a Pulsar.
Through Jack, and the restless pilgrims he meets along America's lonely highways, we grasp how blind we can become to our own surroundings. A lonely purgatory may be the only cure to such unawareness. Indeed, when Anne leaves, Jack climbs out of the comfortable grooves of his privileged existence and begins to see the world in a whole new way. His work is difficult.
"There was still a memory, the trace of memory, but everything else was gone. And I tried to see this as something new, a fresh start. I told myself that now, with nothing, I was a new man. I tried to see myself as reborn, but by this point I was getting a little tired of being constantly reborn."
The folks Jack meets on his trip challenge his reality. There are artists, pretend and real Native Americans, aging hippies, horny old men and a "snowy- haired girl" in a loose dress. Jack moves timidly among them. After all, he is in limbo, simultaneously moving forward and yet immobilized with grief. The most moving passages in the novel are Jack's memories of Anne, adding another log to this intricate literary fire: a love story. While watching another woman swim, Jack recalls Anne bathing by candlelight.
"You saw me, you looked at me, but nothing changed because of me. You were there, in the tub, and you let me look at you. ... You were existing, without facade or artifice. Just being. And I stood there for some time, a long time, seeing your body in the tub, with the water of the tub still and smooth, your face damp, your eyes open, desireless, and you were looking at me. "
Is Haskell suggesting that only when we lose our closest friend do we actually see them? Who knows? Trying to figure out what's in the minds of today's fiction writers can lead to self-inflicted hair loss. In an interview in the January/February 2005 issue of Poets & Writers, Haskell says "In the book I talk about Keats and negative capability -- the ability to live with uncertainty. It's hard to be certain about everything. Not so much to be certain about everything, but it's hard to name everything correctly."
Haskell's theme of uncertainty continues to the book's surprising conclusion. Details of Anne's disappearance keep shifting. An accident at the gas station involving a dark Mercedes may have led to Anne's death. But is she really dead? What will become of Jack? He often remarks on a membrane that separates us from our many selves. If we dare to push through to the other side, what will we find? "American Purgatorio" is an eloquent attempt to answer that question." - Stephen Lyons

"On a hillside nearby, children are sledding in the bright sunshine, but I am in the house thinking about death. That's what John Haskell's first novel, American Purgatorio, will do to you. It is one of those books that sets the reader's mind in new directions. The novel has been called a mystery story and a road-trip tale. It is both and also a compelling study of misery.
Ostensibly it's the story of a man who has literally lost his wife. She may have driven away in their car or she may have been kidnapped; he isn't sure. He begins an extremely muddled effort to find her, which leads him to all-American adventures from New York City to the California coast.
You can read the novel simply for Haskell's witty and touching telling of the quest. He's a marvelous writer, with a sharp eye for American peculiarities and pop culture. But the ending wouldn't make sense because you would have missed the novel's literary background, which Haskell makes no attempt to hide. For in this skinny little novel with its pleasantly short chapters, the author has undertaken nothing less than a modern remake based on Dante's Divine Comedy. Purgatory, to which the title refers, is a state in which people who die find themselves when they have a pretty much guaranteed spot in heaven but have not atoned sufficiently for their shortcomings. They must earn entry through enduring more suffering.
None of this is on the mind of our hero, a young man perfectly in love with his wife, Anne, and on his way to a weekend trip to her mother's house. Anne waits in the car while he chooses some snacks, "which, after a while, I'd narrowed down to a thin pack of peanuts, a protein-style candy bar, and a so-called energy drink."
But outside he finds the car and Anne gone. Later he walks home, after repeated efforts to reach her cell phone. He sleeps, ponders, calls the police (who say they can do nothing), breaks a window, repairs it and then decides he has to do something.
Suffice it to say he is not the kind of husband you'd want if you had been kidnapped. He searches through her desk, finds an old map on which she's circled such disparate places as Lexington, Ky., Boulder, Colo., and San Diego, where she had been born. With this much evidence and after taking time to prune their little garden to death, he takes off on his journey. He carries a few things, including a laptop and a credit card, a thoroughly modern Marco Polo.
Along the way he buys a junker car, plays poker, confronts a woman who looks like Anne but isn't, and generally tells his story to people because he needs to feel as though he's making a connection.
And he drives. When he despairs of ever finding her, he does not give up: "I felt that if I didn't keep moving, I'd fall, like a child on a bicycle."
By the time he makes San Diego, he is out of credit and money and lives on the beach with yet another colorful character, a homeless man who likes to use large words. Throughout, our hero remains a thoroughly engrossing human, if not much of an intuitive or deductive thinker.
Just the sort of person who might actually find a missing wife." - Martha Liebrum

"What holds us to this earth? What if the laws of gravity and mortality were suddenly repealed? What if they've been repealed all along? Ever been on a mountain road and suddenly felt your car getting lighter and lighter -- tuning up, perhaps, to fly? Ever tried to read about quantum mechanics, prose that produces a feeling of profound dizziness, not because we can't understand it but because it "proves" what we've known all along: that tables aren't solid, that people may manage to be in two places at once, that most of what we know or think we know is just one big, ignorant lie?
Changing the subject just a little, ever eaten a chocolate-chip cookie or a white anchovy and then wanted another and another and another until the mere thought of a cookie or an anchovy fuels your contempt for all things material until you see one of those flat-screen TVs as big as a sailboat, and then you want it, want it, want some more? Ever had too much sex -- enough that you begin to think seriously about convents and monasteries -- until the next time you want sex?
And this is the scary thing. Do you ever experience any of this even if you think of yourself as a man or woman of moderation, able to take trees, cookies, anchovies, movies, the beach, flowers, kisses, mean remarks all in your stride, take them or leave them alone?
Jack, the protagonist of John Haskell's novel "American Purgatorio," thinks of himself above all as proudly, profoundly ordinary: "I went to New York, married a girl named Anne, and was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened." He assures us immediately that he is "always good at making adjustments," so when he goes into a convenience store by a gas station at the side of a highway in New Jersey to buy some snacks while his wife gasses up the car, he's worried and furious to see when he comes out that his wife and car have disappeared, gone, fled the scene -- but he's not all that surprised. Still, how did they do it? And why?
Jack looks around. He looks for the car. He queries the gas station attendants, who seem curiously vague. Finally, at a total loss, he walks home to Brooklyn, where he and Anne have shared an apartment. He calls the police, who seem indifferent to the whole thing. He even phones his mother-in-law, whom they were supposed to visit, also to no avail.
Where is she? Where is Anne, his wife? The reader may already be thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield," where a husband leaves home for no reason, or Dashiell Hammett's famous "Flitcraft" vignette in "The Maltese Falcon," which takes place along the same lines, or perhaps even the mysteriously missing wife in Todd Goldberg's brilliant novel "Living Dead Girl," but the reader would be barking up the wrong three trees.
After a day or two during which Jack perversely destroys the pretty little garden that he and Anne have planted together, he finds a map among her possessions, sees a route scratched on it and decides somewhat irrationally that this is a signal to drive across America to find her. (After all, she may not have driven off of her own volition. She may have been kidnapped, abducted.)
Jack discovers a determinedly uninteresting America out there, a lot of curiously disaffected people who seem somehow to come from a different age. Some of them live in yurts, for example, the way they did in the 1950s and '60s. Or they throw parties where the punch is laced with LSD. No one seems to be doing anything much except hanging out. As he goes farther west, Jack encounters the Hopi and other Indian tribes. They pointedly ignore him.
His car begins giving him trouble, and that's perhaps when he first notices his own curious anomie. He misses Anne, but he's not frantic, just grim and sad about his loss. He spends Hell's own amount of time trying to communicate with a tree. He accepts advice about his increasingly delinquent car but can't seem to act upon it: All the stuff about filters and tubes and clogged gas lines seems like too much to even think about. Soon he gives away everything he's brought with him: his carton of CDs, his books, his photos, finally his backpack. By the time he gets to the Pacific, Jack should feel light, but he doesn't. He's met a girl, Linda. He wants to want her, but he can't. He desires his life, but he can't muster up the desire.
The ending here took me by surprise. It's what every writer strives for - an event both surprising and inevitable. "American Purgatorio" is a serious, admirable novel, well worth reading." - Carolyn See

"John Haskell performed a stunning featof emotional ventriloquism a few years ago, slipping inside the raddled dream-lives of the famous and tragic in I Am Not Jackson Pollock. That collection of short stories doubled as film criticism, since many of the tales blurred the boundaries between movie characters and the actors who played them. Haskell also made sharp, lyrical excursions into the heads of those troubled by inarticulacy — Jackson Pollock, for instance, or Topsy the elephant, who has no way of expressing her grief and rage when her once loving trainer loses interest.
American Purgatorio, Haskell’s debut novel, moves several steps beyond emotional ventriloquism to brain surgery, dissecting a mind in constant, dangerous flux. Jack, the book’s fictional hero, "was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened." That something occurred at a roadside gas station in New Jersey, where he got out to buy a snack while his wife, Anne, filled up the tank. When he emerged, the car and Anne had vanished.
"I was good at making adjustments," Jack admits in the chatty but deadpan tone that reigns over the book. "That was my specialty, adjusting to circumstances — I prided myself on this ability — and so the first thing I did was convince myself that nothing had happened, that Anne would suddenly appear." Putting his soul on ice, Jack walks home to Brooklyn and tries to act normal. But even ordinary activity becomes impossible, flooded with an ineffable sense of horror: "I sat in what I thought was my old familiar chair, trying to find its familiarity," Jack says. "I sat in a variety of ways — legs crossed, legs spread, legs up on the arm of the chair — trying to find the familiar position that would restore my familiar life, so that I could then live it."
When Anne fails to come home, Jack decides that his wife has been kidnapped. He sets off on a quixotic cross-country goose chase in a rickety used car, searching for his Dulcinea — or perhaps, if you take into account the references to Dante’s Divine Comedy (not just in the book’s title but also in the section heads, each named after one of the seven deadly sins), you might guess he’s heading up Mount Purgatory in search of his Beatrice. Substituting action for emotion, he propels himself westward, frantically seeking some "fragile thread connecting me to my old life." While stumbling half blindly through hot springs and pueblos and sweat lodges, he meets lusty hippies, sympathetic cops, and a yoga-practicing hitchhiker, all of whom in one way or another urge him to relinquish the past. But that’s not such an easy task, since Jack keeps rewriting his memories of Anne until we are absolutely sure that he’s not just an unreliable narrator but an unbalanced one. You can almost feel his mental walls being rearranged with every chapter, like a building in a state of constant rehabilitation.
This is a hypnotic and sometimes maddening novel, heady yet grounded in straightforward prose. And it’s nearly impossible to summarize in a review without detracting from the impact of the gradually unraveling structure. American Purgatorioteases us with its genre possibilities: Is this a thriller? Amnesia fiction? A metaphysical road novel? A puzzle? The answer is all of the above, of course. As in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Haskell dwells on the seepage between actor and role, passivity and action, denial and revelation, life and death. Jack begins to believe that he can take advantage of that blurriness: "I believed, not only that the eradication of the bad could happen, but that I could make it happen. That I could fit the world into my particular need." Yet the world refuses to fall into step with his desires: He trails cars that resemble Anne’s but aren’t, and chases after Anne look-alikes, who, on closer inspection, turn out to be total strangers.
Fans of Haskell’s first book, so crammed with deliciously condensed biographies, may be disappointed by Jack, who begins and ends the tale as a husk. Flashbacks yield only tiny flickers of who he was before that fateful trip to the New Jersey rest stop: We just know that he was a married magazine editor, nursing vague hopes for a successful career and babies. His vacancy comes to stand in for any of us who go about our business without thinking too hard about our place in the universe, "dreaming of what can happen, dreaming of what life will mean, of who they want to be." Toward the end of American Purgatorio, Jack struggles to remember what it was he had expected of his life: "I know it was something, something good, something that would make the world better, something that would make Anne happy." In the end, Haskell leaves us with a handful of dust, in the best possible way." - Joy Press

"The premise of John Haskell's ambitious first novel is familiar. A man stops at a gas station for refreshments and returns to find his wife and car have vanished, as if into thin air. A taut, low-budget, Eighties Dutch film, The Vanishing, later remade for America, began in the same way, and made good use of the highway as psychological no-man's-land where the imagination can run riot and a mind can unravel with alarming speed.
Haskell's narrative, though, is neither a thriller, nor a detective story, and the mystery at its centre is not so much existential as Zen metaphysical. The protagonist, Jack, searches for his wife in an aimless, drifting way, following all kinds of tangential clues, as if welcoming the kind of random human entanglements that ensue.
In doing so, he enters another America, both stranger and more revealing than the one he thinks he knows. It is a place of fringe-dwellers whose self-styled alienation mirrors and illuminates both his sense of loss and his creeping loss of self.
Haskell's writing throughout has a floating, impressionistic quality, but Jack's often illogical interior monologue may test the patience of some readers, his thoughts unravelling into abstraction as he crosses an ever-changing, but uniformly similar, terrain of empty, brightly lit cityscapes, sprawling low-rise suburbs and long stretches of desert freeway.
Jack's passivity, which only makes sense in the light of the novel's revelatory ending, is such that he embraces whatever this shadow-world throws at him. At one point, he engages in peyote-fuelled sexual experimentation with a hippie couple at some kind of new age gathering and one expects some kind of epiphany. Instead, enlightenment eludes him and he continues to exist in a curious emotional hinterland where the most that he can feel is a kind of detached curiosity.
As he travels further out - and further in - he sheds his possessions, ditching even his car, the ultimate symbol of American freedom. On he walks, thinking and remembering, and all the while becoming more unmoored from his thoughts, from his former, grounded life.
For most of its free-floating narrative, American Purgatorio is a Zen riff on the classical quest novel, its title a nod to Dante, its chapter headings lifted from the seven deadly sins. In the final pages, though, the story shifts uneasily into a very contemporary ghost story. It could even be read as another quasi-metaphysical search for meaning in post-9/11 America, but, to this reader's relief, Haskell insists on the holiness - and transience - of this life above any notion of a divine and everlasting afterlife.
'It is not a matter of accepting death,' says Jack towards the end. 'It doesn't happen like that. "Accepting" is a word in a dictionary and what happens isn't a word, just like clouds aren't words, or the man driving by with his arms out the window isn't a word. But they happen. They all happen and then they're gone. Clouds, people, buildings, laughter, darkness. It all happens and then it's gone.'
Haskell has certainly created a distinctive new voice, pitched somewhere between Murakami's downbeat mysticism and Sofia Coppola's cool, detached and, some would say, empty, cinematic mood paintings. It is the kind of writing you have to surrender to in order to engage with, and I'm not entirely sure the pay-off rewards all the effort.
For all that, he has created an allegory for our uncertain times and the oddly detached tone may chime with enough readers to ensure it, at the very least, attains cult status." - Sean O'Hagan
John Haskell, I Am Not Jackson Pollock (Canongate, 2003)

«A wonderfully intelligent, audacious, and perverse collection of... what, exactly? Fiction? Gossip? Film Studies? Iconography? Liberty taking? Here's a book that defies the usual categories. But one thing's sure, I savored every mythic, mesmerizing word of it.» - Jim Crace

«John Haskell turns works of art into stories and stories into a weird blend of magically unrealist commentary. His investigations into the dreamlife of movies and the way they have insinuated themselves into our unconscious are, in turn, works of art.» - Geoff Dyer

«In these unique meditations on what it is to be human, John Haskell inhabits the famous and infamous, crawling inside outsiders ranging from Jackson Pollock, to Hitchcock characters, and on to Capucine, Glenn Gould, and more. Haskell makes the familiar his own, playing with language and history, turning time inside out, and delivering our culture back to us, made entirely new.» - A.M. Homes

"I Am Not Jackson Pollock is John Haskell’s first short-story collection. In these nine stories, Haskell employs the guise of fiction in order to comment on some famous people and their many foibles, to take some twisted looks at the nature of life, death, and some historical imperatives. As observed by the author, the world is rarely exactly what it seems. The contradictory lives of such illustrious and bizarre figures as Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, Topsy the elephant and the Hindu god Ganesha, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho, the pianist Glenn Gould, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, and Laika the Russian dog (the first animal in space) are all examined. Haskell inventively plays with all of these real figures and cuts away at the surface veneer of each in order to expose often odd and/or unsettling truths.
In the opening story, “Dream of a Clean Slate,” Haskell delineates the difficulties that Jackson Pollock had in always understanding where the artist ended and the man began. He became the greatest living artist of his time by being willing to venture into uncharted territory, yet Pollock the man had insecurities that were bigger than any canvas he could fill. Unfortunately for him, Pollock attempted to overcome these personal insecurities by drowning himself in alcohol. The collection is never less than informative, almost never less than a revelation. Haskell knows the facts backwards and forwards, but more importantly he knows when to venture off into the world of myth, the world of mumbo jumbo, and pull larger truths out of his proverbial literary hat." - www.enotes.com

"Once in a great while, there is an exciting piece of literature that succeeds in being enjoyable, thought-provoking, and ground-breaking. John Haskell has created such a work with I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Haskell has written himself a collection of “creative meditations” that blur the line between actor and character, between artist and art, between who we are and who we desire to be. His comparisons of unlikely companions reflect the synchronicity of life and art and create the basis for the reader’s understanding that Haskell’s answer to the question “what is the meaning of life” and to the artist’s cliché “what is your motivation” are both “desire”.
In “Dream of a Clean Slate,” Jackson Pollock struggles with his personal and public selves. His trajectory toward failure leads him into a spiraling third persona who is determined not to fail as others desire him to but to find a path towards failure that will buck the stereotype and fulfill his own personal desire:
And Jackson, in an effort to find something real and solid, shook his head. Which was what they wanted him to do, and the problem was, he didn’t want to do what they wanted him to do, he wanted to do what he wanted to do, but because they wanted him to do what he wanted to do, what he wanted...”
Thus Haskell sets the reader up for a psychological catch-22. If we desire to be different but others expect us to be different, how do we define our differences and our desires as our own and not as the desire to fulfill other’s desires? (Pause here and think about that one – it’s just the beginning…)
Desire takes the form of love and communication in “Elephant Feelings,” where an elephant cannot speak to its trainer, a sideshow freak is unable to communicate in the language of her lover, and Ganesha, the Hindi God, is unable to get a man to acknowledge or speak to him despite his repeated efforts to do so. All three characters desire the ability to communicate their love and to have it communicated back to them and all are thwarted in their attempts to fulfill the need.
In “The Judgment of Psycho,” perhaps the most enjoyable of all of the stories (although it is hard to qualify a “best” story out of this collection), Haskell retells the general plot of the movie Psycho and first blurs the lines between actor and character. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh are given the motivations of their characters (Norman Bates and Marion Crane). Haskell gives us insights by using asides that involve the mythology of Paris and Helen to explain Perkins’ desires and an under-painted Vermeer painting to project to us Leigh’s fear.
“The Faces of Joan of Arc” continues the crossing of art and artist when we meet Renee Falconetti, whose desire to identify with her character’s pain causes her to lay on a bed of spikes; Mercedes McCambridge, who is the voice of the devil in The Exorcist, whose desire to stop drinking causes her to hate the part of herself that she begins to know as the devil; and Heddy Lamar, whose diminishing beauty and desire for authority cause her to shoplift.
While characters in the first stories struggle with the consequences of their own desires, in “Capucine” we see the first inkling of another way to fall victim to desire. Haskell briefly takes us inside the mind of Norman Morrison, who lit himself on fire outside of the Pentagon in 1965, in a startling comparison to the sense of hopelessness Capucine must have felt in her struggle to suppress all personal desires in order to fit the molds appropriate to other’s expectations.
“Glen Gould in Six Parts,” the only story besides “Clean Slate” that does not bother to plunge us into the seemingly unrelated asides that seem to be a hallmark of these stories, gives Gould the sensations and inner monologue befitting an autism sufferer. Haskell shows us his best technical moment with a clever, insightful, and functional description involving parentheses.
The “pure potential” of a young girl and her desire to please others is paired with the first dog in space, Laika, who has been anthropomorphized to share the same desire to please in “Good World." While the young girl disappears below the earth after falling in a well, Laika disappears above the earth, and neither of them are able to fulfill their desires. This pairing is additionally highlighted with a mention of Aristotle’s thinking behind virtue versus desire and the addition of an aside involving Shakespeare’s characters, Richard and Ann, who, trapped within the play, are destined to repeat the same scene and behaviors over and over as a consequence of habit and out of a desire to try and change.
“Crimes at Midnight”, the longest work, appears to be the centerpiece of the work as a whole. In this story, Haskell uses Touch of Evil and its players to again, blur the lines of actor and character as in “Psycho”, to recall the difficulty of communication as in “Elephant”, the desire to identify as in “Joan of Arc”, the catch-22 from "Clean Slate,” and the suppression of desire from “Capucine". This encapsulation of the previous desires into one story is further highlighted with asides including Lev Kuleshov, who created films that showed how perception can be skewed to the desired results, and John Falstaff (blurred again by bringing Orson Welles in as the character of Falstaff) and his desires to control and to maintain illusions.
The last story in the collection, “Narrow Road,” features the poet Basho and his pursuit for uninterrupted concentration and oneness with nature despite constant distractions from his assistant, Sora, and his bodily functions. Basho and Sora are paired with Fanny Brawne and John Keats, young lovers whose expectations for love are vastly different and yet, somehow, focus on the same result, and photographer Lisa Fossagrives, whose desire to be loved but not be in love returns us to Basho’s singular intent to remain focused on his own world.
There is not a story in Haskell’s threaded collection that does not bear re-reading. Each story has an uncanny epic-like ability to trap the reader within itself. It is nearly impossible to move on to the next without a serious contemplation of what we have been shown in these unpredictable pairings that only serve to cement our singular fate as emotional beings to pursue our desires regardless of the fear, anxiety, and unhappiness the pursuit will cause." - Jessica Ferguson

«These pieces come described as "tales", and it would be easier to accept them as strange, retold stories, rather than the "pensées" they appear to be, except that the monotony of John Haskell's would-be Freudian approach makes that but little fun. They read more as scenarios in which he projects what's wrong with him on to you. See how you like it.
There is a dull, pounding, first-person, present-tense American prose which is supposed to signal that you're being told something important, and you have to swallow a lot of it in I Am Not Jackson Pollock. This curious, elliptical book can be profound, but then in the next instant becomes York Notes for weirdos: "Once we think we know who we are, to change who we are means giving up what we love, even if we hate it." Analysands know the period during which they speak of nothing but their analysis - the wearing of the couch on the sleeve. Haskell drags rather a large sofa behind him.
He searches his own cultural universe for characters in which to invest himself, an avatar, albeit an aimless avatar who doesn't know what he wants. He tries doomed elephants, side-show freaks; he takes a fierce interest in Janet Leigh and her breasts; on the "narrow road" Matsuo Basho does a slapstick routine. Lee Krasner has an orgasm (stolen, one feels, from under the very nose of Molly Bloom). Glenn Gould, the suicidal actress Capucine, even Laika the space dog . . . Joseph Cotten, as Holly Martins, stumbles around the suburbs of Vienna trying to self-analyse his relationship with Harry Lime.
Haskell is no more Freud than he is Jackson Pollock, yet a writer who conjures phrases such as "because he's Orson Welles he has a built-in sensitivity to betrayal" has got something. And when he takes a stab at what connects us to each other and our ideas of the world, he is affecting, though he usually insists on making it equivocal: "The thing she hates is the thing she embraces, over and over and over"; "struggling with a ghost who might as well be dead". Dichotomy, in and of itself, is meagre literary fare.
Haskell can be suddenly inelegant, ceasing to flatter your emotional intelligence, leaning on phrases such as "the unconscious thing", "the sex thing", "acting out". Having invited you to some robust old-fashioned cogitating, this writer with gifts suddenly turns into Oprah. "When it comes to influence the old masters are almost never wrong" sounds like the most dreaded kind of high school teacher - the one who's going to hunker down by the camp fire and tell you in a few pawky minutes what all of Homer actually means, in a way you will later cherish in your sleeping bag - the man who sounds wise but ultimately degrades complexity.
Even though he says the important thing is "to live, not hiding intensity, but using it", what fascinates Haskell and his love of hurt is crippling stasis: real people and people in movies and art who are trapped, agonised, unable to move or make a decision. He puts them under a magnifying glass and watches them wriggle. Well, it is a technique, but a creepy one. And you do feel sorry for them. They are dumbly aware of their plight, but cannot find, will never find, an analyst, a hero. Which is very tough for them, because John Haskell isn't going to help them. He just stands there and watches, in a kind of connect-the-dots sadism.» - Todd McEwen

"When Norman Mailer was interviewed by The Paris Review in 2007, he spoke negatively about fiction writing in these times. What’s your take on the state of American fiction writing?
- Well, it’s actually [negative]. We all know that people are reading less. They are doing everything less. They are even watching television less because there’s so many other things to do. But there used to be just one thing to do at a time. Like, either you would read or you would go square dancing or something. Now there are a million things to do. So people are reading less.
Mailer also mentioned Hemingway’s death. He said that “in a way it was a huge warning. What Hemingway was saying by committing suicide is, ‘Listen all you young novelists out there, get it straight, when you’re a novelist you’re entering upon an extremely dangerous psychological journey and it could blow up in your face.’” What do you think of that? Do you have any negative thoughts about the psychological journey?
- Well, yeah, it is a psychological journey. But, now Hemingway, you know — different people deal with the psychology of it differently. The main thing I appreciate was that he did deal with it. Everybody brings his own personality to it. Hemingway’s personality may have been slightly — it might have had a crack in it, so that as he went farther into it, the crack widened and then broke. But I like that. It’s very hard to keep digging into something that can be painful. It’s difficult because that’s where fear is and that’s where anger is. So it’s hard, but I think otherwise the whole thing is just an exercise. What I don’t like is when people don’t bring their whole personality to it, and it is just sort of an exercise for entertainment. I don’t have time for that.
Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?
- When I graduated from college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At the time they had these “For Sale” phone services. It was a Hollywood answering service, an actor thing. Actors would give out the number of the service and people would call in to speak to them. They don’t have them anymore, I’m sure. But I worked there and talked to a couple of famous people. The only one I remember was Mike Connors, who was in a show called Mannix. He would call in and ask for his messages.
At that time I actually didn’t even have a house. I lived in an office building and I used the YMCA to shower. I was cheap. I don’t know what I ate. I didn’t eat. I lived in an office.
You were homeless?
- Yes.
What happened? How did you become homeless?
- I had romantic notions of one thing or another. My idea was to live a little bit on the edge, or on the fringe of society. But I took a playwriting class and the teacher really liked my work, even though I wasn’t actually enrolled in the class. One day I read an article about David Mamet in Chicago and I started thinking about moving out there. So I hopped a freight train. I didn’t have much money to scrape up so I was a hobo for a while. I did that a few times and I was mainly alone, though one time I met an old hobo guy. He was an old, quiet guy and I remember he rolled me a cigarette in newspaper. I was riding in an open container car. It was incredibly filthy and very windy in the car.
One time some guy told me to watch out for the guards — back then they were called bulls. I was sitting on the top of a car because it was a nice day. It was like I was on top of the world. But the train stops and the next thing I know the engineer comes back. He says, “I don’t care if you ride on the train, but I’ll get in trouble if you’re up top.” It was nice, he didn’t call the cops or anything.
So you eventually wound up in Chicago?
- Yeah, I was Chicago for about seven years. I did the thing with David Mamet. He was having some kind of seminar. It was sort of open to the public at St. Nicholas Theatre, which he founded. I ushered at the theater, so I just became part of it.
Then I met some people through the Art Institute and we started a little theater company. I wrote plays and won some awards for the plays. And one of the plays, the most developed one, had a very long monologue in the beginning. I thought that was the best part of the play. I thought I should do some more of that, so I wrote some more, which was at the beginning of writing I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Then I broke up with a girlfriend and moved to New York. I think at the time I was publishing in some little magazines — kind of alternative literary magazines. But I was mainly performing the stories at different places. Some of those stories got into I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Like the Jackson Pollock story, I remember doing that as a monologue. People seemed to like the monologues and I enjoyed it. It was nice because I wasn’t really getting paid — I was just doing it for myself. So in that way I was able to develop.
What were you doing for work?
- A bunch of things. I was copyediting. I worked at a photo studio and I did house painting. I also worked in an envelope factory and a vending machine repair place. I tried to send out a novel but nobody was interested. I just continued to work on the monologues. Eventually I applied to Yaddo [the artists community in upstate New York] for a residency. I went up there and met a woman who was also a writer. She had an agent who read my work. And he eventually sold I Am Not Jackson Pollock to FSG. That was how it really got started.
How did you decide on the title I Am Not Jackson Pollock?
- The agent asked what we should call the book and I didn’t know. One day I was just looking over the manuscript and I saw the first sentence, “I am not Jackson Pollock,” so I said to just call it that. Later I had regrets. I thought it was a terrible title. Now I think it’s good, but at the time I thought it was pretty bad. I was worried it was so flip, and kind of unserious.
So you weren’t just taking the name of your favorite story in the collection?
- No. I didn’t want to name the book after a story because that would give preeminence to a story. I didn’t want to call it one of the story names because then everybody would be like, “Oh that’s the best story, that’s what I’ll read first.” But I didn’t want to tell people what to read first. In a way, it was just the order. I thought that since they sometimes do poems like that, where the first line of the poem is also the name of the poem, I would do that too.
Did you know the story of American Purgatorio before you began writing it?
- Sort of. I don’t remember exactly when it hit me. I remember the initial idea had something to do with a movie I saw and a lot of things kind of came together. There was a movie called This Man Must Die. The beginning of it was about a man and his son walking up from the water in a little fishing village, and a car is coming down the highway. You see the man and the boy. And you see the car. Then the man and boy again. And the car, again. And finally the car makes a quick turn and hits the boy. It kills the boy and drives on. And the man spends the rest of the movie trying to find the guy who killed the boy. So I thought that was a good story. I thought about that and I read a book by Czesław Milosz about the seven deadly sins.
Did you have the general concept of the story down at that point?
- At that point, I had this idea of the seven deadly sins and breaking the novel into seven parts. I think the first time through I sort of found an ending, and then the second time through I realized that it had to go another way. Each time through it became a little clearer.
Did you ever consider abandoning the project?
- Not with that one. I really felt there was something important to say with American Purgatorio, and it seemed to be coming out in the process. It’s funny. When you write something over and over and over, it’s almost like it writes itself.
Are you strictly writing novels now?
- No, I’m not set. To me, it’s all writing. Whether it’s essays or short stories or novels — it’s whatever works. When I start a project, if something doesn’t grab me it’s not necessary to write it. If a certain feeling or emotion doesn’t grab me I don’t have to write it. So I try and keep that in mind.
For instance, in American Purgatorio, what struck me at the beginning was a sense of loss and a sense of fighting with desire and denial — and both of those things in opposition. Anne is gone, but Jack wants to deny that anything has happened. He just wants to live normally and not be in pain. It was initially about that, among other things. That is something that was there from the beginning." - Interview with Charles Haskell


Read also «BEN MARCUS: THE GENRE ARTIST - WRITERS TAKE NOTE: SOME OF THE BEST FICTION TODAY IS BEING WRITTEN AS NONFICTION»

http://www.believermag.com/issues/200307/?read=article_marcus

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