Being Steve Martin
John Haskell's new novel puts a philosophical spin on celebrity worship.
Thu Jan 29 2009
Photograph: Jorge Colombo
John Haskell’s latest novel, Out of My Skin, is a surefooted yet deeply odd book about a journalist who decides to devote his life to imitating Steve Martin. The premise brings to mind the surrealism of films such as Being John Malkovich and the tarnished star worship of Mister Lonely, and indeed, Haskell’s story has a distinctly cinematic flavor. “When I was a kid, I’d see a movie, and whoever the star was, I’d want to be that person,” says Haskell when reached at his L.A. home (to keep things simple, no one pretended to be anyone else). But Haskell, the author of the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock and the novel American Purgatorio, has also laced his story line with a weirdly philosophical interrogation of the nature of identity. “It’s like a koan: Everybody says, 'Be yourself.’ My book asks, 'Just who is this self that I can be?’?”
For the author and his latest protagonist, that’s a thorny question. Out of My Skin is narrated by one Jack Haskell, a lost soul living in a Los Angeles motel, where he spends his time thinking about classic film noir and writing sporadic pieces of freelance journalism (one of his latest stories is about sharks). On a writing assignment he meets Scott, a Steve Martin impersonator who schools him in the quirks of his profession. Entranced, Jack soon follows suit—not as a job or a hobby, but as a way of life. He dyes his hair white and perfects the elusive Steve Martin walk. “I’d created what I called the art of continuous Steve,” Jack says. “Not being Steve for just a moment, but being a nonstop Steve.” Haskell says that he chose Martin not because he’s a great actor (he calls him a “diluted Cary Grant”), but because his exaggerated mannerisms and “middle-of-the-road normality” make him ripe for impersonation.
From there, Haskell pushes the book into increasingly disorienting epistemological territory. Is Jack still Jack? Is his pretending what we all do in our own lives, even though it can seem like madness? “It’s about presentation—how we not only present to the world, but how we think of ourselves,” says the author.
Out of My Skin isn’t all heady mind games. There’s a love affair of sorts. And Haskell peppers the story with spectacles and absurd situations, particularly in a scene where Jack finds himself at a “bathroom party,” nude in a shower with strangers. The real thrill of the book is its odd descriptions of the commonplace (particularly its sex scenes) and its stunningly broad cultural references. The plot is interspersed with ruminations on everything from Brecht and Brueghel to Marlon Brando and Cary Grant’s experiments with LSD. As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Haskell’s deadpan, obsessive voice is both tangible and unhinged, creating what you might call a tone of mundane insanity.
Distinctions between the author and his book’s narrator are intentionally blurry. Like his protagonist, Haskell recently moved from New York to Los Angeles. Like Jack, he is fascinated by the films that are discussed within the novel: North by Northwest, Detour and Sunset Blvd. “I wanted to have a sense of reality,” Haskell says of his decision to make Jack a skewed version of himself. “I wanted it to be as if it could have been this guy’s memoir—my memoir—about the time I went through this little period in my life, or in his life.”
Out of My Skin never really resolves the question of selfhood. In fact, Jack seems more sure of who he is—and what he wants—when he starts doing his wild-and-crazy-guy routine. Though Haskell-the-writer is wryly obsessed with pop culture and absurdity, he again turns to Zen. “The book is about who we are, and who we think we are, and those are the same questions that Buddhism gets at,” the author says. “What is the self? Is it my habits, my desires—or is there something beyond that, that isn’t part of the habits and personality of a person?”
Perhaps all of us are just impersonators—acting out some idea of who we are. It’s a big and possibly disturbing idea, but Haskell charges it with insight and absurd comedy. In fact, Haskell’s view is that Jack’s transformation is a liberating one. “Part of what runs through the book is the idea of paradise, of a kind of utopia, a belief that we can make something better happen,” Haskell says. Even if that requires a total makeover.
Out of My Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14 paperback) is out now.
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