It’s not often that a new style appears in American prose, but this is what happened with John Haskell’s first book, a collection of short stories called I am not Jackson Pollock. The title indicated Haskell’s interest in unhappy celebrity (Pollock, Orson Welles, Glenn Gould, the doomed actress Capucine, the electrocuted elephant Topsy) as well as his preoccupation with the matter of style: Pollock, after all, has the most recognizable idiom of any American painter, and you don’t evoke him without drawing attention to your own brush strokes. Haskell’s method was and is very far from Pollock’s lyrical turbulence. His stories might concern rare and remarkable people, but they consist of recycled language (“Paris, it’s been said, is the city of lovers”) and deliberate banality (“First she was born, then she grew up”) delivered in a tone conversationally flat. On the feelings of Keats–preternaturally eloquent Keats!–for his adored Fanny Brawne: “There’s the admiration and friendship and respect, but there’s also this other thing, the sexual thing, and that was the thing he was feeling, walking along with Fanny in the north part of London.”
Plenty of writers have used clichés and degraded language to satirical effect. Yet Haskell wasn’t deadpanning, wasn’t mocking xeroxed expressions or hand-me-down emotions. Not Jackson Pollock, this was–Andy Warhol. Indeed the stories had the ghostly cool, the flattened affect and of course the morbid fascination with celebrity of Warhol’s silk-screens of Mao or Marilyn. They were also moving, a little, because Haskell tended to depict his iconic figures in situations of isolation or failure, often in extremis. (Capucine climbs out a ninth-floor window, Pollock runs his car into a tree.) It was as if Haskell’s intentionally inadequate language mirrored these characters’ helplessness. It was even as if through the medium of the anonymous, washed-out prose the celebrities were dissolving out of fame and cherished idiosyncrasy into plain common suffering.
Still, if you remember John Haskell’s Orson Welles it’s mostly because you remember Orson Welles. Haskell attained a genuine stylistic originality by appearing to avoid style altogether, but his reliance on ready-made phrases together with biographies of the stars and classic movies made it an originality of the already familiar, the minor originality of an age of mash-ups, remakes and novels about famous novelists. It was once supposed that as history progressed, children would be born older and older, until they emerged from the womb with white hair. In the arts something like this has proved true and, like many debuts, I am not Jackson Pollock seemed awfully wrinkled and creased with cultural history.
American Purgatorio, Haskell’s first novel, is different. Here, his style has become the singular property of a Brooklynite named Jack whose wife has vanished from a New Jersey gas station. The blank, seemingly ingenuous, almost abstract prose now expresses one man’s condition of bewildered grief. Before, Haskell wore an air of coolness like a pair of sunglasses; now he’s achieved an authentic dark vision. Jack is dazed (and then bleakly renewed) by loss, and that is how he sounds.
Upon returning, by foot, to his and Anne’s apartment, Haskell’s narrator discovers in a drawer a map of the United States with Lexington, Kentucky; Boulder, Colorado; and San Diego circled on it. Neither reasonably nor unreasonably, he decides to follow this itinerary westward in search of his missing wife. A novel that begins at a “service station compound,” with its narrator buying “a protein-style candy bar, and a so-called energy drink,” tempts us to mistake it for satire or at least realism. Likewise when Haskell’s narrator pulls off the Interstate in his new car to eat lunch with the hitchhiker he’s picked up: “He was religious about his yoga, which is why, when we stopped at a roadside Kuntry Kitchen restaurant, while we were sitting at a table by the window waiting for the check, Alex slid out of the bench seat, stretched out on the smooth blue carpeting, and began a series of salutations to the sun.” But Haskell’s narrator isn’t burlesquing either Kuntry Kitchen or sun salutations performed on its floor. His tone signals acceptance of all that’s in the world. It’s what is absent from the world, namely Anne, that afflicts him.