Good things never happen in stories that begin at gas stations on the New Jersey interstate, so when John Haskell's new novel American Purgatorio opens on the Palisades Parkway, you sort of know something is up. Sure enough, as soon as our hero Jack exits the filling station office, snacks in hand, he realizes that his car—and his wife, who was in it—are both gone. Most men would fly into a rage of confusion, but Jack simply sits down and decides to wait it out. "Something had happened," he says, confident of his powers to simply reason his way out of panic. "That much I could translate."
Thus begins one of the strangest road trips in American fiction. Indeed, Jack Kerouac meets Dante in this tale of a man meandering across country in search of his missing wife. After morning melts into afternoon, and no leads turn up at home, Jack buys a used Nissan Pulsar and hits the road, heading from Kentucky to Colorado, then onward to California, following a map he found in his wife's effects. Along the way he encounters people who seem as curiously ethereal as he—ex-hippies and burnouts living in yurts, spiritual healers and Hopi Indians. It's almost as if the interstate is a portal back in time.
Or perhaps into another dimension. One of the great pleasures of reading American Purgatorio, which proceeds in sections named after the Latin names of the seven deadly sins, is figuring out what the hell is going on. Is all this unfolding in Jack's head? Is he dead? Or is he a man on one hell of an LSD trip? As with all fiction that has a chance at lasting, there's wiggle room in the interpretation.
It's a startling change from Haskell's last book, I am Not Jackson Pollock, a collection of stories paralyzed by Haskell's desire to remind us he was aware of storytelling's falsities. In American Purgatorio, Haskell finally relaxes into his gifts. He has sandblasted his prose to an otherworldly smoothness. Try to grasp any of his beautiful sentences and they slip gently away from you, just like his sad, lonely and possibly deceased protagonist.