"Out of My Skin"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 31, 2009)
“It’s funny how the body, having learned a way of being, doesn’t like to give it up. I was sure that being Steve [Martin] would make it easier to be with Jane, but often, in the actual act of talking to her, I noticed Steve sliding away. I would make an effort to go back, from my old self back to Steve, and I would go back and forth, and sometimes I got lost in my old self….Not only did I prefer Steve, I was seeing my old self as a hindrance.”
In this "autobiographical novel," author John Haskell tells the story of Jack Haskell, an excruciatingly self-conscious young man who has given himself one month to “test the waters” in Los Angeles and see if he can find a job. Unsure of himself and constantly obsessing about the impression he is making on the people he meets, Jack is looking for a job in journalism, preferably writing stories about people associated with the film industry.
It is not surprising that Jack, who does not have any confidence in his ability to deal with the real world, is an expert on old films who feels most comfortable associating with actors and acting. In Los Angeles he quickly meets Scott, who is starring in Bertold Brecht’s Galileo, and supporting himself by being a Steve Martin impersonator--an actor acting as another actor. Soon Jack is imitating Steve Martin’s walk—and acting like Scott acting like Steve Martin. Eventually, Jack applies for a full-time job as a Steve Martin impersonator.
Although his friend Scott has kept all his Steve Martin gear in a separate “office” downtown so he “did not confuse who he was with who he was trying to become,” Jack throws himself completely into his role as Steve Martin, and “because I was this other person, an entirely new world was possible.” Eventually, “The effort of being Steve didn’t seem necessary anymore. It was happening on its own.” Jack is transformed.
When he meets Jane, a writer of young adult fiction whom he would like to know better, he finds that his Steve Martin role allows him to make overtures with a confidence that the real Jack Haskell has never felt. As the relationship progresses, however, Jack realizes that he must understand who he is—without relying on Steve—if he is ever going to have a full—and real—relationship with Jane or anyone else.
Within this relatively simple framework, author John Haskell writes a fully realized and rich novel in which every detail adds to his themes of fantasy vs. reality, pretense vs. integrity, and expediency vs. personal courage. As Jack Haskell the character comes alive for the reader, John Haskell the author creates dozens of parallels between the insecure Jack, and the world of drama and actors, compressing them in this relatively short novel to give depth and universality to what might appear at first to be a rather superficial story about a superficial and undeveloped character. Every detail counts here. Scott, for example, is playing the role of Galileo in Brecht’s play, and Galileo, an astronomer who promoted the idea of the earth and planets revolving around the sun and not the sun revolving around the earth, knew his theories were right. Still, he was forced by an Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church in 1633, to renounce what he knew to be true, or face torture and death. He recanted—and spent the rest of his life living a lie.
Several films echo as motifs throughout the novel. The 1945 film Detour is being shown on small TV in Scott’s house when Jack visits for the first time. In this film, a young piano player hitchhikes across the country following a lounge singer with whom he is in love. During the trip, the owner of the car, ironically named Charles Haskell, dies, and the hitchhiker then assumes his identity. Sunset Boulevard (1950) reminds Jack of his relationship with Jane. In this film, William Holden, an unsuccessful scriptwriter whose car is about to be repossessed, flees, with the repo men in pursuit. Making a sharp turn into a seemingly abandoned old mansion, he discovers Gloria Swanson, a silent-era film star, who offers him a place to stay, while he pretends to be in love with her. Steve Martin’s Roxanne (1989), a film paralleling the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, also involves play-acting, and figures in the plot.
Jack is also fascinated by the transformation of the real Archibald Leach into the actor Cary Grant, a motif that echoes throughout the novel. He is equally obsessed with Charles Laughton, a remarkably insecure man who played the role of Galileo in the 1947 play.
Jack’s intense introspection increases as he attempts to become a real man in a real relationship with Jane, but he cannot be sure if she really loves HIM, and not his Steve Martin persona. “By becoming Steve and then becoming not-Steve, I’d become a nonentity,” he believes. As the author, through Jack, reveals the conclusions of the various films which have been “playing” throughout Jack’s story, he prepares the reader for Jack’s final actions.
One of the best constructed novels I’ve read in ages, this is a study of a young man of extreme sensibility who is looking for ways to deal with himself and his limitations. Some readers may become impatient with Jack’s extreme self-consciousness and self-indulgence, but for those who love carefully realized, often humorous, novels in which every detail fits and adds to the universality of the themes, this novel is a satisfying pleasure.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Stop Smiling interview with John Haskell
- Three Monkeys interview with John Haskell
- Village Voice interview with John Haskell
- PopMatters review of American Purgatorio
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About the Author:
John Haskell is a former actor, playwright, and performance artist who has worked in New York and Chicago. He studied playwriting at UCLA, and is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at Columbia University. He has contributed to the Paris Review, Conjunctions, Blind Spot, Bomb, Ploughshares, and the radio show, The Next Big Thing.
Haskell lives in Brooklyn, New York.