This is the International Mystery Sale

Wednesday, January 5th, 2005


American Purgatorio


On the Road Again

A review by Anna Godbersen

The narrator of John Haskell's strange and brainy first novel is either a little bit out of it, or really out of it, or maybe he's traumatized, or maybe he's done something bad that he can't quite remember. His name may or may not be Jack. He lives in Brooklyn, and his wife's name is Anne, and he is the sort of man who is "good at making adjustments." He knows that something happened at a highway rest stop, and that now Anne and their maroon station wagon are gone, but given his ability to adjust (he calls it "my specialty," adding, "I prided myself on this ability"), he carries on as though his new situation can be rationally explained. Which, of course, it can't, or at least, not yet. He returns to the empty house he once shared with Anne and in her office finds a map that traces a line from New York, through Lexington, Kentucky, and Boulder, Colorado and ending in San Diego. So he buys a new old car (a red one, with a lot of miles on it) and follows the map on what may or may not be Anne's trail.

American Purgatorio is, among other things, a road novel: It is full of the fluorescent convenience stores, hippies, breakdowns emotional and mechanical, anonymous sex, and amateur philosophizing that constitute roadside Americana. Haskell has an ear for the banal, and his narrator relates the language he overhears and the behavior he witnesses with a deadpan, almost emo earnestness. But Haskell can also be, as in his debut collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock, a careful dissector of emotion and spirit, and Jack, as it turns out, is not only searching for his wife but is on a spiritual quest, of a sort, as well. His story is divided into seven sections, each exploring one of the seven deadly sins. As Jack notes toward the end of the book, "Although the idea of sin is almost extinct, there are still certain things, certain habits of mind around which human beings seem to orbit." In this way, American Purgatorio gets at the big questions, like love and death, while still being mysterious and amusing and deeply original.

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