Out of My Skin

As the title of his first book of short stories -- I am Not Jackson Pollock -- implies, John Haskell uses fiction to explore identity crises. Even as his characters deny the self and smother the id, they are looking for their rightful place in the world. Nowhere is that more evident than in his latest novel, Out of My Skin, in which the narrator (a freelance writer also named Haskell) roams L.A. looking for love and stability while impersonating none other than wild and crazy guy Steve Martin. As the novel opens, the narrator is trying to create "a sense of who I was." Easier said than done when living in Hollywood, the epicenter of illusion and instability. Inspired by the subject of one of his articles -- a celebrity look-alike -- the narrator decides to slip into the would-be life of Steve Martin even as he yearns for meaningful human contact. At first, impersonating the comedian -- dyeing his hair silver and perfecting the walk ("a cross between dancing and staggering") -- is a harmless enterprise: "He seemed to come up from somewhere inside me. And partly because he didn't seem to be hurting anything, I let him come." But then the darker side of impersonation bubbles to the surface, and the narrator grows increasingly dissatisfied with being "a nonstop Steve." Throughout the novel, Haskell (the narrator and the author) is also obsessed with Joni Mitchell, beef-tongue tacos, and film culture (especially Sunset Boulevard, in which screenwriter William Holden's identity is consumed by has-been movie queen Gloria Swanson). The narrator's agonies and ecstasies reach a critical point as he struggles within the "skin" of Steve Martin. As with most of Haskell's fiction, the sentences in Out of My Skin are delivered in a direct, taut style of reportage -- a sharp but effective contrast to his protagonist's deepening confusion. Eventually, language and character come to that spot where truth, identity, and purpose intersect.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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