Out of My Skin

Overview

Los Angeles. A would-be movie reviewer, looking for romance, takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes. After getting to know a Steve Martin impersonator, the writer decides to undertake his own process of transformation and becomes not Steve Martin but a version of him—graceful, charming, at home in the world. Safe in the guise of “Steve,” he begins to fall in love. And that’s when “Steve” takes over. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one man’s journey into ...

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Out of My Skin: A Novel

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Overview

Los Angeles. A would-be movie reviewer, looking for romance, takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes. After getting to know a Steve Martin impersonator, the writer decides to undertake his own process of transformation and becomes not Steve Martin but a version of him—graceful, charming, at home in the world. Safe in the guise of “Steve,” he begins to fall in love. And that’s when “Steve” takes over. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one man’s journey into paradise—and his attempt to come out the other side.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The best new novel I’ve read in several years.” —Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision

“Gutsy, weirdly engrossing . . . This strange, moving book has done just what a first novel should.” —Taylor Antrim, The New York Times Book Review

“My novel of the year.” —Geoff Dyer, The Independent (London)

Publishers Weekly

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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A metafictional narrative from Haskell (American Purgatorio, 2004, etc.). This short novel concerns a writer from New York who has transplanted himself to Los Angeles (the author's bio informs that he splits time between the two cities) and who apparently has the last name of "Haskell." The writer takes an assignment to write a feature article about a Steve Martin impersonator, and he becomes so intrigued by the process of inhabiting another's identity that he starts impersonating Martin. Haskell proceeds to cover well-trod territory, offering meditations on identity in a city where everyone seems to be pretending to be somebody else. The writer meets his girlfriend after she pretends to be a photographer to capture his interest. But it may only be his Martin dimension that attracts her. His thoughts keep returning to examples of actors who transformed their identities, including the married Charles Laughton, who disguised his homosexuality, and Marlon Brando, who pretended to be a youthful motorcycle rebel when he was 35. We get it: Hollywood is illusion, a place where a New York writer can transform himself into someone else. "I'd detached who I was from the web that had organized my world," he says, though it becomes increasingly more difficult to sustain interest in the first-person narration when the "I" is less a coherent self than a cipher. A premise that could prove provocative and funny in a short story turns tiresome when stretched into a novel.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 this novel, 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. --David Abrams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374299095
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/3/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

JOHN HASKELL is the author of American Purgatorio and of the short-story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock. A contributor to the radio program The Next Big Thing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

What happened to me was—not me, but what happened—I’m from New York originally and I moved to Los Angeles to write about movies. Now, instead of writing about movies or people making movies, I was somewhere off the California coast, in the middle of the ocean, writing an article about sharks. A group of scientists had rigged up a fishing boat with winches and scientific instruments, and they’d lowered a stainless-steel cage into the water. They were investigating shark communication, and because I was writing an article about their investigation, I was inside the cage. I was under the water, wearing a wetsuit, and under the wetsuit there were sensors attached to various parts of my body, measuring my heart rate and brain activity, and partly I was thinking about brain activity, but mainly I was thinking about sharks. They’d pretty much guaranteed me a shark attack—something about an anomaly in the ocean current—and so I stood there, or I should say floated there, my back to the boat’s hull, holding the steel handrail, listening to the air as it passed from the scuba gear into my lungs. That, plus the pressure of the water, plus the temperature of the water, plus the fact that there was going to be a shark attack, was focusing my attention.

Speckled sunlight was filtering down from the surface of the water and schools of little fish were darting out from the darkness. I noticed pieces of meat floating above the cage. The scientists were chumming for sharks, and the blood from the meat was dissolving in the water. Through the mask on my face I was scanning the water, looking for a shark, knowing the minute I stopped looking, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, that’s when a shark would appear. And because I didn’t want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the darkness in front of me, not thinking about anything other than the barely visible darkness. But I must have been thinking something. And I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me.

Suddenly the bait was gone. The bait was gone and the shark was gone, but I was still there. And I didn’t know what the scientists, looking at the data from my sensors, were recording, but it was probably fear. My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was pumping, and I could feel my fingertips pulsing inside my rubber gloves. I’d seen enough of the shark to feel its threat, but because I was protected by the safety of the cage, what would normally seem like fear, felt to me like the opposite of fear. Not desire exactly, because I couldn’t actually see the shark. But I was aware of something, just beyond my vision. And when I say aware, I mean I was sensing, from the shark, a kind of communication. And since the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire, I was sensing the shark’s desire. And since one of the things it was desiring was my annihilation, I can’t say there wasn’t a certain amount of fear. What I was trying to do was reach out through that fear, and communicate with this thing. The human brain is capable of receiving millions of neural signals, and I was trying, from inside the cage, to send signals, to the shark. I wanted to tell the shark that I understood what it wanted, and that I accepted what it wanted, and I was just beginning to experience the freedom of this interspecies conversation when I felt the cage begin to rise. The scientists were bringing me up out of the water, and I didn’t want to go out. And I tried to tell them. I tried to signal, through the sensors attached to my body, that I wasn’t ready, that I was still conducting the experiment. I tried to think those thoughts and send those thoughts, but maybe the sensors weren’t working, or maybe my thoughts weren’t working. Either way, I felt the weight of the water pushing me down as the cage rose up, like an elevator, and there I was again, in the breathable normality of air.

The cage was set down on its special platform, and when the door was opened I remember ducking through the opening and stumbling out onto the relative stability of the deck. Although I was standing on the deck, I was still experiencing what had happened a few moments earlier. I felt almost weightless, like air, only lighter than air, my head like a balloon floating on the top of my spine. I could feel my lungs expanding, and I could hear voices talking and metal clinking against metal. People were standing in front of me, and as I stepped out of the cage I embraced, first the captain, who extended a hand, and then an assistant scientist, who brought me a mug of tea. More than embrace her, I locked my arms around her waterproof jacket. She wore overalls and rubber boots, and I could hear her asking if I was all right. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I must have been grinning, and it must’ve been an infectious grin, because when she led me to a plastic crate, she was grinning at me.

I sat there, still in the wetsuit, the electronic wafers still taped to my body, a blue blanket around my neck, my butt bones on the plastic crate, my feet on the deck, the ocean in front of me, the sky above me, and the only thing missing was my thought. I noticed a corroded hinge on the cabin door, and instead of thinking about what kind of paint they used to paint the hinge, or imagining how I would paint the hinge if I owned the boat, instead of reacting to the hinge, I just saw what it was. Every so often I noticed a thought slip into my head, but it was easy enough to let it go and return my attention to the hinge. Or the assistant scientist. Her long hair was falling across her wide blue eyes. She was standing in front of a portable control panel, asking me questions, measuring my physiological responses, telling me that although she hadn’t done it yet, she wanted to go under the water herself. She told me her name was Elena, that she was an intern, and we talked about Dramamine and UCLA and the life of a marine biologist. There I was, holding my mug of warm tea, looking at her face and the peaceful horizon behind her face, and I wouldn’t have called it paradise exactly, but if paradise is a place where the need for protection falls away, then that’s where I was.

And the only question is: How long does it last?

I was drinking my tea, tasting the tea and the sugar in the tea, and seeing this person in front of me, her teeth when she smiled, and the gums above her teeth. And her lips. The shape of her lips reminded me of a certain movie star, and I began thinking about the various roles I’d seen that particular movie star play, and while I was thinking, and while I was involved in the various narratives that led from that thinking, I wasn’t actually seeing the wide blue eyes of the assistant scientist. It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention; I didn’t even know I wasn’t paying attention. I was sitting there, in the middle of what might have been a normal conversation, and I was creating, not a cage exactly, but a sense of who I was.

I’d been living with a woman in New York. When she moved out of the apartment we shared, I lived there a while longer, but the magazines I’d been writing for didn’t pay enough to support living there alone. And I didn’t want to live there alone. And since I’d been thinking about moving to Los Angeles, that’s what I did. I put most of what I owned in storage, and the second thing I did when I arrived was buy a car, an old Toyota Camry. I was giving myself a month to test the waters of California, and since I wasn’t sure what I would be doing, instead of renting an apartment, the first thing I did was find a downtown hotel offering rooms by the month—the Hotel Metropole—and that’s where I was living.

Alan, the one who told me I should “come to L.A. and write about movies,” worked for the Los Angeles Times, and at the moment I was sitting with him, at a low table in a nostalgic bar off Wilshire Boulevard, talking about a piece he wanted about celebrity impersonators. I don’t know why Alan chose that particular bar, but I call it “nostalgic” because, whether or not it actually existed in the 1950s, it was made to seem as if, sitting at the low table, with the bamboo walls and the Polynesian masks, you were somewhere in the middle part of the last century. It was a cultural memento, or more accurately, a memento mori; the past it referred to, the playboy, beach-party aesthetic that came into being after World War II, had long since passed away. The photographs on the walls—publicity stills of movie stars like Dean Martin and Tony Curtis—were cultural souvenirs, bits of the past, and like the past, they were mutable. Because I’d been thinking about changing my own name I was aware, for instance, that Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti, that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, and that Barbara Stanwyck, in her flowing gown, was originally Ruby Stevens.

Anyway, I was sitting there with Alan, and next to Alan was a tall young woman named Jane, an ex-dancer apparently, who wanted to learn about photography. She had a short, boyish haircut, and although she wasn’t all that garrulous, the conversation seemed to flow. Alan, who was trying to get me work at the Times, did most of the talking. I’d come to Los Angeles knowing only two people, and one of them was Alan, and this woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine, a romantic acquaintance. And although I also wanted that, I was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. That’s what it seemed like, an ocean, and Alan’s way of pushing me into the water of that ocean was to introduce me to this person.

We were drinking our drinks and talking about photography, and I said to her, “Alan told me you wanted to know about cameras.”

“I think I have the camera part figured out,” she said, and she reached into her bag and pulled out a film camera with adjustable dials and levers.

Alan, a mojito in one hand, a cheese cracker in the other, sat back in his chair, so that the triangle formed by the three of us left him slightly removed. He’d told her I knew something about photography—which wasn’t an absolute lie, because I did take pictures—but I certainly wasn’t an expert, and I told Jane, “I really don’t know that much.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” Alan said. “He’s got an outstanding eye.”

“That’s what I want to develop,” she said.

“Then he’s your man.”

Alan had the habit of treating people as if they were stupid, not because he believed they were, but because by assuming they were, until they told him otherwise, he was able to feel safe.

My way to feel safe was different. A writer in Los Angeles is fairly far from the top of the food chain, and I wanted to seem a little more substantial, a little more sure of myself than I actually was. I sat with my back straight, my collarbones extended, and I looked into her eyes in what I hoped was a meaningful way. I told her about the two books I’d written, and she told me she also wrote books, young-adult novels. We started talking about books and photography, and I noticed, when she smiled, that her teeth, although they were white, were not quite even, and as I looked at them I tried to imagine what it would be like to love uneven teeth, and by extension, the person behind the teeth.

Unless Alan had hired a prostitute. There was always the possibility that this was a joke he was playing, on me. He’d mentioned something about a life she’d had before the life she was living now, but I didn’t care, and she didn’t seem to care, and we talked like that for a while, but the talking isn’t what I’m getting at. The talking was pleasant, but it was preparatory. What really happened, happened later, when we took Alan up on his suggestion and walked outside.

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