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Out of My Skin: A Novel Paperback – February 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In his excellent third book, Haskell gets into the head of a lonely writer whose shot at a second chance hinges, strangely and brilliantly, on an impersonation of an impersonation of Steve Martin. The narrator, who could or could not be named Jack, leaves New York after a breakup and lands in Los Angeles to write about movies at the invitation of his editor friend, Alan. Soon, Alan introduces him to Jane, an ex-dancer apparently, who wanted to learn about photography, and assigns him a story about celebrity impersonators. When the narrator meets Scott, a Steve Martin impersonator, he begins channeling a version of the actor himself, and his impersonations mushroom into continuous Steve. Meanwhile, his relationship with Jane escalates (complicated by his Steveness), he tries his hand at acting and muses about famous movies and the ways in which Hollywooders reinvent themselves. Haskell's vision is frightening and exhilarating, and his prose can imbue a spiritual glow to, for instance, a discarded raisin on a Starbucks table. It's an odd world, and certainly one worth entering. (Feb.)
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From The New Yorker
A journalist leaves New York in the wake of a failed love affair and heads to Los Angeles, hoping to write about movies. He winds up interviewing a Steve Martin impersonator and is inspired to try “being Steve” himself—not as a paid gig but as a daily incarnation. What at first seems like just another novel about L.A. anomie turns out to be something more transfixing: a kind of pop Zen parable, at once whimsical and austere. Haskell cultivates a winking deadpan to chronicle his narrator’s twilight of the soul, inserting revelations in unexpected places. When the narrator (who, inevitably, becomes an actor) is cast as a monster in a video game and required to lift a heavy co-star for a prolonged shot, he hopes that “with acceptance the pain would lose its meaning”; later, he discovers a raisin abandoned on a table at Starbucks, “glowing with its raisinness.”
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As the novel progresses, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with Steve Martin, living vicariously through what he perceives Steve Martin to be. This alter ego becomes a way of coping: An escape from the demons within himself he is too terrified to face.
A good companion for this funny, sometimes lugubrious novella, is the film Being John Malkovich, which also tackles the theme of self-loathing people wanting to vicariously live through celebrities.
Interspersed with this strangely compelling narrative is the narrative of various movies and books that pop into the character's mind as he tries to make sense of his self. Most of the novel is the main character looking at himself. In a way, it's a meta novel."
As Jack throws himself completely into his role as Steve Martin, he discovers that "an entirely new world was possible." When he meets Jane, a writer of young adult fiction, he finds that he is able, as Steve, 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 complete relationship.
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. The author creates dozens of parallels between the insecure Jack, and the world of drama and actors, compressing them to give depth and universality to what might appear at first to be a somewhat superficial story about a superficial and undeveloped character. Every detail counts.
Several films serve as motifs. In the 1945 film of Detour, a young piano player hitchhikes across the country to woo a lounge singer. 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. Here, William Holden, an unsuccessful scriptwriter flees in his about-to-be-repossessed car. Turning into an old, seemingly abandoned mansion, he discovers Gloria Swanson, a silent-era film star, who offers him a place to stay, while he pretends to love her. Steve Martin's Roxanne (1989), a film paralleling the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, also figures in the plot. Jack's fascination with the transformation of Archibald Leach into the actor Cary Grant, and his equal obsession with the remarkably insecure Charles Laughton, who played the role of Galileo in the 1947 play, are also motifs.
One of the best constructed novels I've read in ages, this is a study of a young man of extreme sensibility who is trying 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. n Mary Whipple
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This is a short book and even if you find it unsatisfactory, you'll have not wasted a lot of time in reading it. Then again, you may find it quite gratifying in some way.