In fictional quests these days, there's usually a point at which mobile-phone technology has to be taken into account. Perhaps the battery is dead or the hero can't get a signal. In Percival Everett's American Desert, Ted, having escaped his captors, wants to let his wife know he's all right, but there are no public phones and he has no mobile. But that's sort of OK, because Ted is stone dead. You give a certain amount of leeway to a dead guy. In John Haskell's American Purgatorio, the narrator's wife disappears from a gas station in New Jersey and he realises that he left his phone in the car she has apparently gone off in. From a pay phone, he calls her phone and then his, but neither appears to be switched on.
Ted Street, hero of Everett's 15th novel, is a professor of English on his way to commit suicide when he is involved in a car accident. Thrown through the windscreen and decapitated, Ted is dead, but not in the manner he had chosen, which may explain why at his funeral he sits up in his coffin, sparking a riot. Ted goes home to his family, tentatively fingering the sutures around his neck and the media camp in his front yard. Escaping to the supermarket, he's kidnapped by members of a militarist Christian fundamentalist sect.
Death has granted Ted not only a second chance, but second sight. When he meets Big Daddy, the cult leader, he gets flashes of the abuse that Big Daddy suffered. Since, in terms of resurrection, Ted is a can-do kind of guy, you imagine escaping a bunch of religious lunatics might not be asking too much. Nor is it.
It's not scary or particularly strange, so neither horror nor weird fiction. It's occasionally funny, but not really a comic novel. It's a satire: prince among genres. Fine, if the object of your satire is deserving and the way you attack it well-judged. But if the objects (the media, the Christian right, the military) more than adequately satirise themselves on a daily basis, and if the arrows in your quiver are blunt, what is the point? Wherein lies its ambition? What distinguishes it from taking the piss?
John Haskell has a book of short stories under his belt, but American Purgatorio is his debut novel. The opening owes something to George Sluizer's film The Vanishing, adapted from his own novel by Tim Krabbé, but this time the car disappears too, leaving the narrator in a daze.
He buys a second-hand car and sets off on a trip in search of his wife, Anne. He meets a stranger who looks like Anne and he raises his hand and we fear for her - but it's not that kind of book. He shares a bed with another woman, and a fantasy takes hold that she is Anne - but it's not that kind of book either. To describe it as an existential meditation in the form of a quest sounds pat, but that's what it is. It's extraordinarily wise, a little funny and very sad. On a technical level it's deceptively superficial and profoundly impressive.
Haskell's timing is perfect, his control over his material complete. The narrator's journey takes him across a recognisable America of brownstones, big cities, mega-malls, small towns, motels, freeways and doss-houses, but it's a universal story, told in hypnotically dreamy prose, about what it is to exist in the world. If you don't like it, you may not really be alive to the pleasures of reading.
Nicholas Royle's novel 'Antwerp' is published by Serpent's Tail
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