Braving the Elephants

Celebrity and Suffering in John Haskell's Factual Fictions

No question, debut author John Haskell is not Jackson Pollock, nor is his book of stories, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, a book of stories, or fiction in any trad sense. Haskell has devised a rambling, ruminative, plain-spoken voice—something like the blather of a compulsive, TCM-addicted cult-studs grad student in psychotherapy—with which to husk and re-examine stories already bobbing in the slipstream: Basho, Keats, Hector and Paris, Hedy Lamarr, Pollock's crash-and-burn, the unspoken desires between Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Orson Welles's frustrations on-screen and off. Not being Pollock hasn't prevented Haskell from trying to be Pollock. Call it speculative nonfiction, or the demi-essays of a dreamy empath.

Haskell doesn't play at generating insights or even remarkable prose. He's more interested in reimagining popular cultural phenomena—people, moments, and stuff meant only to bring us stupid joy—as lyrical folktales, often unleashing a bedeviling retrospective melancholy. It's a strategy dear to poets (from Lowell to Ashbery to Mary Jo Bang, but check out David Wojahn's sonnet-marathon Mystery Train), whereas most prose fiction aimed down this twilit avenue vies for a potent absurdity. Not Haskell, whose pieces doggedly focus on the suffering beneath the vinyl surface: Pollock's inner torment with booze, women, and insecurity, Mercedes McCambridge's alcoholism (equating the bed-strapped McCambridge in detox with Linda Blair's tortured possessee in The Exorcist), the suicide of faded starlet Capucine.

Haskell has a grace with the Shel Silverstein-ian, fractured-fairy-tale one-liner: "Once upon a time there was a dog that wanted to be an astronaut," he begins the tale of Sputnik passenger Laika, who, in Haskell's view, wanted only to help humankind and eventually made peace with the fact that she would die, alone, in orbit. Telling the story of Topsy, a real 19th-century Coney Island elephant with a broken heart that killed two men and was publicly electrocuted, Haskell mentions how her trainer "gave her bananas when she was good as a way to reinforce their affection. He also had a stick, which he used, but because for Topsy the connection they had was paramount, she loved him for the bananas and forgave him for the stick." Later, the neglected Topsy's depression is reasoned thus: "Elephants remember so well because their experiences are stored in their bodies, and they have big bodies, and her big body was filled with unpleasant thoughts and emotions."

John Haskell: Not Jackson Pollock, but a writer capable of retrospective melancholy
photo: Mark Boyer/Shoot Digital
John Haskell: Not Jackson Pollock, but a writer capable of retrospective melancholy

This sort of thing can punch a raw hole in your comportment, if you let it. (Describing Pollock's last drunk moments in his runaway Oldsmobile, Haskell cuts a free-associative reverie down: "And then he hit the tree. The tree didn't move so he died.") There's little to learn here about Pollock or Keats or Welles, but as modern mythopoeia, the book sings.

 
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