Haskell, John 1958–
Haskell, John 1958–
PERSONAL: Born 1958. Education: Columbia University, M.F.A.
CAREER: Writer, novelist, playwright, actor, and performance artist. Huron Theatre, Chicago, IL, cofounder and writer, beginning 1982.
AWARDS, HONORS: MacDowell fellowship; Yaddo fellowship; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship.
Gallop (play), produced at Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Waterford, CT, 1984.
I Am Not Jackson Pollock (short stories), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
American Purgatorio (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Paris Review, Granta, Conjunctions, and Ploughshares. Contributor to radio show The Next Big Thing.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist, playwright, and short-story writer John Haskell is an actor and performance artist who has worked in New York City and Chicago. A founder of the Huron Theatre in Chicago, Haskell served for some time as the venue's only writer. While acting and directing as well as writing at the theatre, "the writing aspect and the performance aspect [of theatre] became intertwined early on," as he remarked in an interview with Dan Wickett on the Emerging Writers Forum Web site. A monologue he wrote in an early play "led me to start performing my own work," he told Wickett.
The pieces in Haskell's short-story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, trade on the author's knowledge of stage writing and creating monologues. Haskell envisioned these works more as essays than stories, Haskell said, more as performance pieces than works of short fiction. "Most of the stories were performed. Not read, as in a reading, but memorized and performed," he stated to Wickett. "Once the book was published, then magazines got interested and published excerpts or asked for new material." "Genre aside, these pieces are deftly written and create a melancholy mood with few words," noted Library Journal reviewer Julia LoFaso.
Among the stories in the collection are "Elephant Feelings," which mixes the historical stories of Topsy, an elephant, the execution of which—by electrocution—in 1903 for killing its trainer was captured on film by Thomas Edison; Saartjie Baartman—known as the Hottentot Venus—whose oversized sexual characteristics made her a sideshow phenomenon in early twentieth-century France; and the Hindu god Ganesha, who sports the body of a man and the head of an elephant. These three unlikely characters "illustrate how the combination of frustrated love and anger can destroy a life," commented a reviewer in the Nation. "The Judgment of Psycho" offers a psychosexual examination of the relationship between Janet Leigh's and Anthony Perkins's characters in the movie Psycho. Artist Jackson Pollock feels uncharacteristic nervousness when he sees a beautiful woman at a bar in "Dream of a Clean Slate," while real-life actors and fictional characters meet up and drift apart, resulting in "a sympathetic exploration of the common circumstances that link them all," observed LoFaso.
An Esquire writer called the collection an "impossible-to-categorize debut." "Haskell evades definition in his audacious debut collection, creating an innovative blend of fact and fiction and deliberately eliding the difference between them," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Each piece is equally original, sad, and strange," observed the Nation reviewer. The collection's "wonderful, quirky, even extraordinary tales … intersperse Hollywood gossip with plumbing the depths of the human spirit," stated Booklist reviewer Michael Spinella. The Publishers Weekly critic concluded that Haskell's "hypnotic writing creates its own genre, unsettling and quietly bizarre."
In American Purgatorio, the narrator walks out of a convenience store to discover that his wife, Anne, who had been waiting for him, has disappeared. The novel follows the protagonist as he searches desperately for his missing wife and tries to find out what has happened to her, and to him. In slow, dreamlike sequences, the narrator buys a car to travel in search for her, following a map he found with a possible route traced out on it. He encounters sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful characters on the way. Each chapter of the book loosely addresses one of the seven deadly sins and the levels of Dante's Purgatorio, and the novel as a whole explores ideas of sin, but not in a judgmental way. Haskell remarked to Wickett that "these things called sins are just human tendencies that might be useful to look at." By the time the narrator arrives in San Diego, he has remembered more about the events at the convenience store. He has realized the worst about Anne, and now turns his fearful suspicions on himself.
The novel's "complex and sometimes comical plot keep the reader glued to every page until the astonishing ending," wrote David A. Berona in Library Journal. The unnamed narrator's "journey is both heroic and heartbreaking," noted Booklist reviewer Michael Spinella, while a Publishers Weekly contributor called the book a "strange and compelling novel."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 1, 2003, Michael Spinella, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 1376; November 15, 2004, Michael Spinella, review of American Purgatorio, p. 553.
Esquire, April, 2003, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 32.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2003, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 163; October 15, 2004, review of American Purgatorio, p. 978.
Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Julia LoFaso, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 119; December 1, 2004, David A. Berona, review of American Purgatorio, p. 100.
Nation, June 16, 2003, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 41.
New Criterion, May, 2005, Max Watman, "Ignorant Armies Clash by Night," review of American Purgatorio, p. 61.
People, January 10, 2005, Anna Shapiro, review of American Purgatorio, p. 48.
Publishers Weekly, March 24, 2003, review of I Am Not Jackson Pollock, p. 58; August 9, 2004, Robert Dahlin, review of American Purgatorio, p. 129; October 25, 2004, review of American Purgatorio, p. 25.
Emerging Writers Forum Online, http://www.breaktech.net/EmergingWritersForum/ (January 16, 2005), Dan Wickett, interview with John Haskell.
John Haskell Home Page, http://johnhaskell.home.mindspring.com (October 18, 2005).