Out of My Skin
By John Haskell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $14
John Haskell’s first book, a collection of stories published six years ago called I Am Not Jackson Pollock, was a weird little work that almost seemed to take fiction in a new direction, by being based in fact. Each piece was a psychological exploration of a real-life character (a person or an animal), a flat, haunting, matter-of-fact description of the problems of being that character. For instance, when Mr. Haskell described the fate of Laika, the first dog in space, it seemed like the saddest thing in the world.
In his new novel, Out of My Skin, matters of identity are again at hand. A writer named Haskell (like the Edmund MacDonald character in Detour, if not the author) moves to Los Angeles, hoping for a fresh start. Through a writing assignment, he meets a guy named Scott who works as a Steve Martin impersonator. Scott doesn’t much look like the actor, but he’s nailed down much of the affect, and can sort of mind-alter into Steve Martin enough to convince other people. Haskell finds this both pathetic—in a moment where the author reveals some of his narrator’s true personality, Haskell is berating poor Scott about the silliness of pretending to be Steve Martin—and fascinating; after Scott hangs up his Steve Martin suit coat and bails for Tucson, Haskell promptly goes about impersonating Steve Martin himself. Not for money (though he tries that), but simply because he wants to be someone else.
As a version of Steve Martin (he even dyes his hair), Haskell manages to get into a relationship with a girl named Jane, who has a mysterious past and a bean bag chair, in which the couple drink tea. But being someone else doesn’t always make things easier. One afternoon, on a walk, Haskell is preoccupied with his vocation:
“Not only did I have the Steve Martin walk going on … but Scott had told me to imagine that my eyes were like ray guns, that a beam of light was shooting out of them, and I didn’t know what I looked like, but Jane was looking at me—sympathetically—as if I was having some kind of problem. And the problem I was having was that, although I was enacting the physicality of Steve, the person who was doing the enacting was me. I couldn’t quite get into the full Steve groove because there was another groove. I was real, and the groove of who I was was real, and yes, I could picture Steve, with his joie de vivre, walking down the street with a beautiful woman, but because of my idea of reality, I couldn’t step into that picture.”
But it gets easier. And things go all right for Haskell as Martin; he picks up some work—not as a Steve Martin impersonator, but as a serial killer on a cop show and, later, a monster in a video game. (Again, a flash of the real Haskell.) Eventually, though, Haskell begins to resent his alter ego, and seeks to get back to his true self (for this, he shaves off his faux gray). The question is whether that person is really preferable to Steve Martin, because all indications point to Haskell, the character, being kind of a jerk.
Like John Haskell’s stories, and like his previous novel, American Purgatorio (2006), which is about a man who sets off in search of his missing wife, Out of My Skin is short on action and long on thought—some of it deep and complicated, and some of it fun. There’s something simple about the questions raised—how do we know our realities are the same? Who are we? What makes us us?—but Mr. Haskell’s writing is weirdly mesmerizing, which lends to his work an enticing air of profundity.
There’s plenty of strange, thinky fiction out there, but most of it is so crazily ambitious and convoluted. John Haskell’s is deceptively lazy. And that’s why, though it will only take a few hours to read, Out of My Skin will linger with you long after.
Hillary Frey is a senior editor at The Observer. She can be reached at email@example.com.