American Purgatorio, by John Haskell
Reviewed by Rima Walker
You walk into a convenience store to get some snacks, and when you come out your car is missing and your spouse with it. What do you feel? Dread? Shock? Fear because the world you know and the main person in your life has disappeared? Where do you go from there? In this episodic novel with each section named for one of the 7 deadly sins, the protagonist, Jack, lost in his own private purgatory, journeys from place to place, meets different people, and has experiences, some good and some not. Jack is on a quest: he is searching for his wife, Anne, who has disappeared along with their car from the front of a convenience store. He thinks that something was happening, nothing was happening, and then knows “It was all happening.”
Suffering, confused, numb from grief and loss, he enters a state of denial. He tackles his gardening so he doesn’t have to think about it, but he “pruned to death every plant I ever cared about.” He decides, even though proud about adjusting to all situations, to search for Anne, and so he does in a beat up old car that he transforms “into a car that would find my wife.” But along the way, he also is searching for his own life and the meaning of that life without her.
As he hits the road, he travels steadily westward. He meets hippies, native Americans, a philosophical beach bum, thieves and others, all of whom tell him in one way or another that it is best to give up the past and his quest; but unlike a picaro who learns from each encounter and becomes wiser, he learns only one thing from each-that Anne is his wife and he must find her, that desire exists everywhere, only with Anne it was not a passing thing “but something solid and true.”
In a pivotal horrific scene, he meets a woman carrying a garbage bag he thinks is full of laundry. Instead of burying the dead cat that is actually in the bag, he flings it into a lagoon. Since it floats instead of sinking, he rakes it in to take it out of the bag and flings it back in. But the cat continues to float, and as the woman has said, “the cat had a mind of its own.” From that point on, Jack starts to have memories of what actually happened at the convenience store, and he knows that “Anne is gone.” Has she been kidnapped? Is she dead?
We learn about her disappearance as Jack recalls more of it until he feels he has no desire left and no real dreams, that the only way something can exist is if he makes it exist. He is disappearing, becoming will-less and invisible, until finally the truth of what happened at the convenience store comes back to him.
In a flat, deadpan, almost somnambulistic tone with an occasional rich metaphor, Haskell has created an interesting, existential character who becomes alienated and dead to the possibilities of a world in which Anne is missing. Slowly, slowly he begins to lose his ego, his sense of himself. Haskell thus reveals one man’s way of handling loss and grief and love and desire and the possibly hopeless search for the woman who would have helped him live out his dreams. But there is more, a surprise ending that may, or may not, leave you satisfied. ~