John Haskell performed a stunning feat of emotional ventriloquism a few years ago, slipping inside the raddled dreamlives 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 Purgatorio teases 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.