Volume 18 • Issue 42 | March 3 - 9, 2006


“American Purgatorio”
John Haskell
Picador, $14
Reading March 5, 6 PM
Night & Day Reading Series
220 Fifth Ave.
Park Slope, Brooklyn

Photo by Peter Serling

John Haskell, author of “American Purgatorio.”

Searching for love by the dashboard light

By Aileen Torres

“American Purgatorio,” John Haskell’s debut novel, is a tale about a man named Jack on a mission to find his missing wife, Anne. When she disappears suddenly from a gas station in New Jersey, Jack has no clue as to why his wife vanishes, and at first he’s angry with her for being so cruel as to leave him — if that is actually the case (he’s not really sure). But that anger dissipates as he becomes consumed with desire to find the woman he loves.

Moving through the world in a daze, Jack somehow makes his way back to their apartment in Brooklyn. He ends up discovering a map of the U.S. in the drawer of Anne’s desk that has Lexington, Kentucky; Boulder, Colorado; and San Diego marked. Seeing this as a sign, he allows himself to be talked into buying a used car from an acquaintance, then sets off on a trip that eventually takes him clear across the country, in loose accordance with the map. Along the way, Jack meets an assorted bunch of oddballs, all marginal in their own way, from hippies to freewheeling yogis to beach bums.

The cast of characters along Jack’s spontaneous road trip provide a lot of entertainment, but they also dispense their own wisdom to the suffering protagonist, who is, at the moment, between things — life and death, love and grief, abundance and loss, security and uncertainty, to name a few. And it is this state of liminality that imparts the sense of purgatory to his trip, which like most road trips is a spiritual journey, in parallel with a quest to find his beloved.

Yes, there are echoes of Dante’s “Inferno” in Haskell’s novel, but his intention isn’t to condemn or condone anything. The book is structured in seven parts, each taking the Latin name of one of the seven deadly sins: “Superbia” (Pride), “Ira” (Wrath), “Invidia” (Envy), “Luxuria” (Lust), “Gula” (Gluttony), “Acedia” (Sloth) and “Avaritia” (Greed).

“I read this book quite a while ago, a book of essays by Czeslaw Milosz, and one chapter is about his schooling in the seven deadly sins and how he remembered them in the order they were in and how Dante had them in a certain order. And I just thought — I don’t think of them as sins, I’m not Catholic — I just thought of sins as a way to think about human propensities, human characteristics. Rather than just tell a story, I wanted to have these chapters about other things that would structure the whole story,” explained Haskell.

In each of the seven parts of the book, the people with whom Jack comes into contact either have traits that are emblematic of one particular sin, or they affect Jack in such a way as to bring out these characteristics. But throughout these encounters, Jack has a singular purpose: Find Anne.

“It is about desire and about love,” said Haskell about the novel as a whole. “I wanted to write it and say, okay, what is desire? What is his [Jack’s] kind of love? And look at it and talk about it and be explicit about it. They say you should show and not tell—I also wanted to tell, to talk about that.”

Haskell, a Brooklyn resident whose first book is the critically acclaimed collection of stories “I Am Not Jackson Pollock,” is certainly explicit in his rendering of Jack’s emotions and thoughts.

His writing borders on stream-of-consciousness prose, but one that is extremely precise and very self-aware to the point of being humorous. A tough task, but Haskell handles it deftly, maneuvering Jack’s emotional intensity to the foreground. Haskell is so honest and attentive to Jack’s thoughts and feelings, we can’t help but feel as though we’re in his head as we’re reading.

For instance, around the beginning of his road trip, Jack thinks he sees Anne in their car driving along the opposite side of the highway, so he swerves to cross over, inevitably provoking the attention of a state trooper. He gets into a fight with him, but comes to reconsider his belligerent behavior: “I sat up and looked at the patrolman. He was just a person, no worse than anybody else. He had the rounded shoulders of a man past his physical prime, and I could see how he might’ve felt threatened, somewhat, by my aggressive gesture. I offered a conciliatory remark. . . Still cuffed, I told him about Anne, and about why I was seeming so desperate, and he must have had a sympathetic streak… as we talked, the anger, which had seemed so liberating a moment ago, now seemed, in light of my desire to be with Anne, not very helpful.”

Jack’s thoughts flow through the pages of “American Purgatorio,” and more than the things that actually happen to him, it is his openness about the contents of his consciousness that is the dramatic strength of the novel. Here is a man who has lost someone dear to him, and he wants her back; wants, really, to get back to happiness. This is his intriguing journey, with several surprises for the reader to discover along the way.


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