Tuesday, February 22, 2011

American Purgatorio by John Haskell

The introduction to John Haskell’s American Purgatorio may sound familiar. A man goes into a filling station to buy refreshments and when he returns outside his wife and his car have disappeared. This is also the start of George Sluizer’s brilliant 1988 Dutch movie, The Vanishing (and also his witless 1993 Hollywood remake). But there the similarities end. American Purgatorio is a curiosity indeed, like Percival Everett’s American Desert rewritten by Robert M. Pirsig. This is a philosophical novel of ideas, a meditation on existence and love and hope and despair. It has a lot of humour along the way but, ultimately, this is a serious piece of fiction.

It is clear early on that all is not as it seems. There is an ethereality about everything that happens to the man, Jack, in the immediate aftermath of his wife's disappeance. Everything seems out of sync. As he stares out of his window the glass appears to become fluid; there is a lag in the steering of his car so that it doesn’t corner until moments after he has turned the wheel; a kid working in a gas station supplies him with power steering fluid despite apparently not having heard Jack ask for it because he was wearing headphones. The world is a strange place, and Jack feels increasingly disconnected from it.

He leaves his home behind and sets off in his car to find his wife. He has discovered a map in her study with a number of places – Lexington, Kentucky, Boulder, Colorado, San Diego, circled on it and highways marked. With only these clues he sets off in pursuit of his wife, having convinced himself that, because he wants to find her, he will find her. The novel becomes a roadtrip as he traverses America, like Phaedrus on his chautauqua in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, but all the while his experiences and encounters grow increasingly strange. The America he is finding, one feels, is not precisely the America that we know. Each of the chapter headings is taken from Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins, and the people he meets, the moments that elapse, grow ever more troublesome. He feels an overwhelming sense of failure, caused by a ‘disconnect betwen the world [he] wanted and the world as it was.’ He descends deeper into an America that becomes increasingly like its own mythologised past and as he does so he begins to slough off his possessions, giving away his tapes, his books, his mandolin, finally even his car.

In turn, the strange characters he encounters seem to be trying to draw him out of himself – the enigmatic Linda who appears at the start and at the end of his adventures, a couple of hippies with whom he has a sexual encounter, some native Americans who rescue him when his car breaks down, a priapic car driver who offers him a lift, a ‘snowy-haired girl’ who would have been very comfortable in a Haruki Murakami novel – but as Jack’s journey towards purgatory progresses he seems to become increasingly insubstantial. Finally, he is reduced to begging and living on the beach. The dreams he has had for his life have grown ‘smaller and smaller, shrinking and cracking’. The point of his life, he acknowledges, was to be loved, but by now ‘it was enough to simply exist.’ And one begins to suspect that even that basic urge may finally be beyond him, although as he approaches his nadir he does exclaim ‘Wanting life is life, and I’m not quite ready to give it up.’ Ready or not, though, one fears for Jack.

The novel’s conclusion is a curious affair. Whether it works largely depends on whether or not the reader has already guessed it: if he has then it works; if he hasn’t, it is likely to evince some groans. They would be unjustified. This is not a trick ending or a sudden descent into genre: it is clearly foreshadowed by the narrative (and even the title), and it provides a serious existentialist exploration of human motivation. American Purgatorio is a satisfying, beautifully controlled novel, the sort of thing Paul Auster used to be able to do. John Haskell has produced a fine debut novel.

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