Generally, when reading for pleasure, I give a book twenty pages to catch my attention. If it can’t do that, it goes flying across the room until it slams against the wall, the dresser, or the dog. It is fortunate, then, that I had to read all of John Haskell’s American Purgatorio in order to review it, because the novel begins to get interesting on the eighth line of page 21. That’s when the narrator, Jack, starts describing a circuitous series of thought associations leading from a large-breasted stranger to a used Nissan Pulsar to his missing wife, Anne, who recently disappeared from a New Jersey gas station. The passage is funny, unexpected, and compelling, and, reading it, I suddenly felt not only that this character was a unique human being but that I might be willing to spend a whole book with him.
Anne’s disappearance and Jack’s strangely opaque reaction to it consume the first twenty pages. After his wife and car vanish from outside the gas station, he wanders home and mopes around for a few days, waiting for her to come back. She doesn’t. His expressions of grief get increasingly tedious: “[A]lthough I anthropomorphized the dumb green garden, it was my own dull gnawing that was gnawing me.” Finally, Jack discovers among Anne’s things a map showing a cross-country route to the west coast, and he reasons that by following that same route in his new secondhand Nissan Pulsar, he might find her.
The jacket copy for American Purgatorio promises “a detective story and a meditation on the seven deadly sins,” but I would like to have a word with the lackey who wrote that description, because the novel manifestly delivers neither. If you squint at the premise, you can sort of make out a detective story, but you’ll have to squint so hard the skin peels off your forehead before you see anything besides the Latin section titles that directly relates to the seven deadly sins. Yes, characters get vain or jealous or lustful from time to time, but I can’t think of a decent novel where they don’t. For 232 of its 239 pages, American Purgatorio is simply a story about a spaced-out, introspective man stumbling through his grief, and for the last seven pages, it is suddenly a story about something else. To elaborate would be to unfairly reveal Haskell’s ambitious closing gambit, which is not quite a gimmick but not quite not a gimmick, and as ambivalent as I am about its success as a narrative strategy—and its consistency with the rest of the book—it certainly deserves respect.
Jack sets off west, following Anne’s map. (The question of whether she would have left the map behind if she was really planning to take that route never occurs to him.) His ostensible purpose is to track her down, but this goal pretty quickly turns into an afterthought. Encountering various odd characters along the way (and repeatedly declining their sexual advances—except, inexplicably, in the case of an old man who asks to fellate him), Jack makes his way from New York to San Diego, eventually ending up as a homeless beachcomber. By the end of his journey, fragments of a strange memory have begun to rise to the surface of his consciousness, and this memory will prove more revelatory about the fate of his wife than any external clue he discovers.
During Jack’s long cross-country trip, Haskell steadfastly refuses to write the kind of linear, investigative plot that his premise demands. Jack misses his wife, but he doesn’t really search for her or explore clues that may lead to information about her disappearance. For example, when he sees a car that he is pretty sure belongs to Anne, he just looks at it and says “‘Anne… Anne.’” Later, when he meets people who seem to be the car’s new owners, he doesn’t bother to interrogate them about it.
Another time, when a hitchhiker claims to have seen that same car a few miles back at a rest area, Jack attempts a U-turn and gets into a physical altercation with a traffic patrolman, who then starts chatting with him about fly-fishing. “[A]fter about a half hour of this relational negotiation,” narrates Jack, “he unlocked the handcuffs, gave me a warning, and then”—implausibly enough—“he let us drive away.” By then, Jack has simply forgotten about searching for his wife’s car. His own acknowledgement of this lack of motivation (“I realized I hadn’t been looking for Anne, not very diligently”) comes far too late to cure it.
Haskell’s insistence on writing such an anecdotal, dreamy narrative is in some ways admirable, and certainly it makes for a more intriguing and unpredictable story than a straightforward detective yarn would. Although he runs into too many New Age-y types for my taste, a number of Jack’s experiences (like helping sink a dead cat in a lake, or palpating a giant tumor through a drunk man’s distended belly) have an eerie power that is almost worthy of Jesus’ Son, the terrific Denis Johnson book that also happens to feature a drifting, zombified narrator. Still, eschewing a plot driven by causality allows the reader to be indifferent about what happens next, meaning that every page, every sentence, has to carry its own weight by being inherently compelling. Quite a few scenes in the middle section of American Purgatorio fail to do that, and as a consequence, the novel would benefit from being 40 or 50 pages shorter.
Indeed, a good deal of content between page 50 and 150 should have been cut—like the part where Jack hangs out for a while with some annoying hippies in a yurt. As far as I’m concerned, any novel in which the protagonist sees, enters, or even thinks about a yurt cannot ever join the canon. This rule holds true for all fiction written in English or any modern Romance language. (Novels written by Central Asian nomads are, I guess, exempt from yurt restrictions.)
Jack’s character, though, is so hermetic, so determinedly introspective, that most of the time he hardly seems to notice where he is. Early in the book, he describes himself as “good at making adjustments,” which is only true in the sense that his numbness to external stimuli excuses him from having to adjust to them. He is not a reliable narrator, either, although we don’t realize how spectacularly unreliable he is until the novel’s closing revelation. That conclusion—the proverbial “surprise ending”—casts doubt on everything precedes it, and it causes such a cataclysmic shift of orientation for the reader that far more justification is required than Haskell seems willing to provide. The new information he presents at the novel’s end seems to violate the coherence of the world he has created. We’re left wondering how that character could’ve really done that if this is true. Unless maybe that character was really… Or perhaps…
Haskell is mostly unhelpful with such questions, but despite the unavoidable credibility problems his ending creates, I cannot deny that it offers an authentic emotional catharsis—and that it does make a kind of intuitive sense. Your average “surprise ending,” is a shabby, colorless Band-Aid slapped on a half-dead animal (see: the collected works of M. Night Shyamalan), but a closing twist can sometimes succeed if its creator manages to make it feel both unexpected and in some way inevitable. Haskell does this. Though problematic, his ending is also bold and surprisingly affecting. Still, that’s only in the last seven pages, and because the novel has no plot in the traditional sense, the success of American Purgatorio before then hinges almost entirely on its narrator’s voice, which is at various times boring, maddening, fascinating, and unexpectedly moving. Much the same is true of the novel as a whole.