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.
And yet Anne isn’t quite a woman, not even a dead or missing woman. Even Jack’s regular apostrophes to her (“Your arms. They’re my favorite parts of your body…”) don’t entirely outfit her with three dimensions. Her name becomes equally a term for worldly desire and chimerical satisfaction, a principle of longing corresponding to that “lady sent from heaven,” Beatrice, who beckons Dante through his Purgatorio. Any reader who doesn’t accept the allegorical cast of Haskell’s novel will be troubled by various problems of verisimilitude: Why doesn’t Jack try to contact Anne’s parents? Why doesn’t he file a missing persons report? The better way to read the novel is as a quixotic campaign against loss that turns into a search for a means to stop searching.
Haskell titles each of his seven chapters after one of the seven deadly sins, but such parallels with Dante probably proved more useful to the author than they will to the reader. Dante’s pilgrimage through purgatory was the arduous ascent of a fearsomely steep mountain, while Jack’s loose trip rolls horizontally from coast to coast. And Jack is accompanied, in place of Dante’s Virgil, by a changing cast of hippies, dropouts and artists, all of whom dispense real or ersatz wisdom with the earnest dippiness of American seekers. Alex, the yoga practitioner, advises Jack to
“Take it off of yourself and put it into the world…. It won’t go away if you keep pushing it away.” Trying to get rid of it, he said, was just another way of holding on to it.
I still wasn’t sure what the “it” was we were talking about, but that was all right.
“It,” we understand, even if Jack does not, is Jack’s temporary anger (or sin number two, wrath) at Anne’s disappearance. The passage serves as well as any other to illustrate Haskell’s tolerant comedy. Alex may be sententious and slack, but he’s not unwise.
The same might be said about Haskell’s narrator himself. At first his dully throbbing voice symptomizes a state of dazzled grief. Later on, the carefully careless prose acquires the feel of letting go. When Jack recalls having given up the ambition of being a playwright, the analogy with seeking fugitive Anne goes without saying: “Growing up in Chicago I had, I don’t know what to call it, a dream, I guess…. I felt I needed an identity, as a person. I needed something I could be, some thing, and I thought a playwright, that was something I could be, I could live with that.” But Jack is a failure as a playwright:
Maybe I had the wrong dream. But I didn’t want to say that, I didn’t want to admit defeat…. And I was walking along, in New York, on Wooster Street, it was Wooster Street because the sidewalk was bumpy and I had to keep my eyes down so as not to trip, and I was walking along, and all of a sudden I felt it snap. It snapped. The dream. The dream died. And I let it die. It didn’t feel that bad. In fact it felt good. It felt like what it must feel like, or what I imagined it must feel like, when a dream comes true.
No other writer I know could wring such feeling from the prefab phrase “a dream come true.”
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.