Thursday, November 3, 2011

John Haskell's Existential Road Trip in "American Purgatorio"

(John Haskell)

This interview originally appeared in the Westchester Journal News in March 2005)

By Dylan Foley

At a New Age party in Boulder, a man named Jack is despondent. Several weeks earlier, his wife suddenly drove off with their car from a gas station in New Jersey. A free spirit named Feather tries to seduce him, but Jack can’t break through a strange emotional membrane to sleep with her. Something is dreadfully wrong in his life.

In his debut novel “American Purgatorio” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), John Haskell has created is a surreal American road trip of love, grief and desire, where a man, in looking for his wife, is stripped first of his possessions, then his identity. In an act of desperation when his wife doesn’t reappear, Jack buys a junky car and drives across country from New York, following a map his wife has marked up which directs him to Colorado and California. Jack drives through despair and isolation to try to save himself.

“I did a lot of hitchhiking from high school onward, and I’ve hitchhiked across the country any number of times,” said Haskell, a tall, intense ex-actor and playwright, in an interview from a Brooklyn, New York, coffee shop near where he lives. “Sometimes, I’d take along Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ It was more as a talisman. Not so much for the literature itself, but for the idea behind it.”

Some of Haskell’s inspirations, however, are much older. “In my mind, what is the greatest road trip in fiction?” he asked. I’d say it’s Homer’s ‘The Odyssey.’ It’s just a great story.”

In a flashback repeated many times, Jack remembers his wife’s disappearance. Sometimes he sees his wife pull out of the gas station in their car. Then more layers are added to the memory. Was there an ominous black car that drove by? Did some men kidnap his wife? Or did something much darker happen?

The title of the book is inspired by another great literary road trip, which is Virgil and Dante’s journey from hell to heaven, with a lengthy trip through Purgatory. Keeping with the netherworld images, Haskell titled his novel’s section headings with the Seven Deadly Sins-- Pride, Lust, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony and Sloth.

“The Seven Deadly Sins added a structural layer to the book,” said Haskell, who is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection, “I Am Not Jackson Pollock.” “At the beginning, the man is feeling very confident that he will find his wife,” indicating that he is prideful.

“But as the book progresses, the sins become less obvious,” noted Haskell. “The end of the book is ‘greed,’ but it is not about money. It is the greed for life, ‘I want life!’”

“American Purgatorio” is an achingly beautiful book on one man’s longing for his lost wife. The slim novel also becomes an existential road trip, where a man questions his very existence, what he has seen and who he is. He is slowly breaking down, losing the trappings of his urban, educated life. He is a just a man driving, traveling through his own personal purgatory.

Haskell, 47, had his own odyssey in becoming a novelist. In the 1980s, he traveled from his native California to Chicago, to get involved in the theater scene there, initially inspired by the work of playwright David Mamet. Haskell founded his own theater company. To support himself, he had many odd jobs.

“Chicago was cheap back then,” said Haskell. “Most of the time I was a house painter. I was once a vending machine repairman. I worked as a proofreader and at an envelope factory.”

It was while working on some performance pieces on traveling across the country that “American Purgatorio” developed. “I performed a series of monologues,” said Haskell. “I used to have this big Cadillac and I did a monologue about driving it across country. Somebody said to me that afterwards that the could listen to that monologue forever. There is something narratively intriguing about being on the road. What would happen next?”

The influence of the old monologues can be seen in Jack’s first-person account of his life falling apart. “I was trying to have a literary speaking voice,” said Haskell on writing Jack’s first-person narrative.

In creating the novel, Haskell folded in some of his own autobiographical details--Jack is a playwright like Haskell once was, who had lived in Chicago. “That is the ‘art’ of it,” said Haskell. “The novel is a big stew of imagined and real things, and they all blend in, in terms of visualizing something.”

It is the flowing descriptions of the countryside, like the Indian reservation in the Southwest where Jack’s car finally dies, that have resonance for Haskell, where he draws his images from memory. “The narrator’s journey, though oddly unreal, has a realistic quality to it,” he said. “That’s where things I know from experience come in.”

As Jack travels across the country, he has misadventures and strange happenings. Jack becomes more feral, adapting to each setback.

“At the beginning, he does not accept his situation,” said Haskell. “When he’s losing everything, he’s kind of aware of it, but he’s also becoming aware of the facts of his life, and things relating to his wife,” said Haskell.

In California, the narrator winds up as a beach bum in San Diego, with just the clothes on his back. He is stripped of even his name as he gets ready for the final steps in his life. “He is coming to his new reality,” said the novelist.

“Something happened to him at the beginning and he has to find out who he is,” said Haskell. Getting rid of the stuff is the way of getting rid of the veils, to see his reality.”

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