John Haskell performed a stunning feat of emotional ventriloquism
a few years ago, slipping inside the raddled dream-lives 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.

AMERICAN PURGATORIO | By JOHN HASKELL | Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 256 pages | $23 hardcover