It turns out that American Purgatorio concerns not so much the death or disappearance of a spouse as the living loss of oneself. After ditching his car near Phoenix ("named," he blankly states, "after a place named after a bird that rises from the ashes"), Jack reflects that "although I'd rid myself of possessions, I needed to get rid of some more, needed to rid myself of the habit of being what I was."
It's a commonplace of Marxist literary criticism that the inimitable personal styles of high Modernism--Woolf's nervous suavity, Faulkner's barreling sentences, Lawrence's prickly rhapsodies--constitute the acme of bourgeois individualism, if not a kind of late protest against mass society. Haskell's style is also unique, but unindividualistic. Here it's the distinctive voice of someone fading into anyone and, increasingly, no one. Jack, whose name, but not whose story, if you read this novel, you will immediately forget, is not quite egoless; but his ego, by the end, is like some disintegrating Buddhist prayer flag on a stupa, sun-worn and half-transparent as it ripples after the breeze.
American Purgatorio ostensibly tracks the seven deadly sins rather than the four noble truths. Still, it seems to me the most Buddhist English-language novel I have read. It's difficult to follow Haskell's narrator from Brooklyn, through Boulder (capital, if anywhere is, of Buddhist America), and finally to beachside nirvana in San Diego without thinking of the precepts of nonattachment, overcoming desire and the unreality of the self. Toward the end, Jack says, in what could almost be translation into contemporary vernacular of one of the ancient Pali texts, "I tried to see myself as reborn, but by this point I was getting a little tired of being constantly reborn." You might even say that Anne serves as an American name for the tempter Mara, personification of desire in the Buddhist cosmology. But this would be to miss Jack's mortal ambivalence: "Wanting life is life, and I'm not quite ready to give it up."
Haskell has by no means written a perfect book. He doesn't manage to dispel all questions of verisimilitude at the beginning; and, more damaging, in the last pages, when allegory turns to ghost story, he violates his novel's own peculiar coherence. And by depriving Jack of friends or family, he neglects to consider the price others pay for our enlightenment, their stubborn attachment to us even after we have won release. (The Buddha abandoned his wife and infant son: How did they feel about that?) Nevertheless, American Purgatorio is a triumphant American picaresque, a thrilling quest poem in the indigenous form of a road novel.
Another of these was written by Saul Bellow, and if there was a Jackson Pollock of the postwar American sentence, a reckless freestyle master, surely it was the Bellow of The Adventures of Augie March: "I am an American, Chicago-born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself...." Whereas Haskell commences with flamboyant flatness: "I'm from Chicago originally." The difference between the two first sentences is the difference between a high-spirited epic of self-assertion and a slender account of the threadbare ego. The difference is also probably between an America confidently coming into possession of the world, and an America anxious that its desires are consuming that world: a difference of fifty years. But in terms of successful originality, the two sentences, or rather the novels that they head, are not so very far apart.