American Purgatorio by John Haskell

From hope to despair and back
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The Independent Culture

"I went to New York, married a girl named Anne, and was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened", Jack relates in the opening paragraph of this extraordinary first novel. What happened is that they pulled into a petrol station in New Jersey, and, while Jack was in the shop, Anne and their maroon station wagon disappeared. Jack's subsequent search for his wife takes him across the continent towards San Diego, her birthplace.

"I went to New York, married a girl named Anne, and was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened", Jack relates in the opening paragraph of this extraordinary first novel. What happened is that they pulled into a petrol station in New Jersey, and, while Jack was in the shop, Anne and their maroon station wagon disappeared. Jack's subsequent search for his wife takes him across the continent towards San Diego, her birthplace.

In the course of his expedition, Jack throws himself on the mercy of strangers. But he can never quite connect: there is no venturing across the gap between himself and others. As his childlike simplicity becomes exposed, fellow transients exploit his vulnerability. "Do you know what has happened to you?" someone asks him with a resonance that is pure Kafka. Stuck, like Josef K, in a dark fairy tale, Jack confronts the despair of solitude. In one typically eloquent progression, he moves from desire to hope to belief while waiting for his car to be fixed. In the writer's solipsistic vision, the exterior world is just a representation of Jack's troubled soul. As doubt gradually undermines him, he begins to lose the will to live.

This is an abstract meditation on the nature of consciousness. Sad, funny and elegiac, American Purgatorio is a powerful portrayal of alienation in the 21st century.

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