Purple America marks a new level of accomplishment for Rick Moody, who won the 1992 Pushcart Prize and has been regularly cited as among the most gifted writers of his generation. Moody himself regards Purple America as a deliberate corrective to his critical reputation as an essentially cerebral artist. He does not relish having been dubbed the heir apparent to John Updike and John Cheever as the chronicler of what one reviewer calls “the psychedelic twilight of the suburbs.” While Moody identifies himself as a “late modern” writer, his literary mannerisms—a baroque rhetorical style, a trenchant eye for the revelatory minutiae of consumer culture, and an acerbic, at times cartoonish, rendering of the physical and psychological indignities of the contemporary human condition—recall the postmodern extravagances of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Yet alongside its dazzling linguistic display and comic audacity, Purple America evinces a deeply felt compassion for its characters.
The novel unfolds along two narrative tracks, one involving the catastrophic illness of Billie Raitliffe Sloane, the other documenting the escalating breakdowns and resultant spills of an aging nuclear power plant until recently supervised by Billie’s second husband, Lou Sloane. Both stories illustrate the desperate, largely futile efforts made by modern society to stave off the ravages of time on humans and machines alike.
Allen Raitliffe, Billie’s first husband, had worked on the new weaponry that had ended World War II and initiated the Cold War. Having been present in 1946 at a “minor” laboratory accident that proved fatal to at least one friend, and having witnessed the devastating effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific later that same year, Allen left to invest in the newly prosperous industry of uranium mining. Neither his subsequent infertility nor his sudden death at age thirty-nine is directly tied to those earlier experiences, but there is a gnawing possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship.
Moody tells his tale through a choir of voices, each chapter situated within the perspective of one of the four major characters; a fifth voice is provided to the deceased Allen by the inclusion of several letters written to Billie early in their marriage. All these voices are suspended within the medium of a third-person narrative sensibility that knows more than the characters themselves and regularly drops hints of the consequences attendant upon their choices.
The precipitating event of the narrative is a temporary failure of love: Billie’s impersonal abandonment by Lou, who is unable to endure her growing despondency. His desertion stirs Billie to use a despised computer voicing system to summon her only child, thirty-eight-year-old Dexter (Hex), to her eccentrically appointed New England home.
In his own way, Hex is as much a wreck as his mother. A severe alcoholic, he is also emotionally isolated and suffers from a stutter. Once he absorbs the news of Lou’s departure, Hex expects to be asked to replace Lou as the mainstay of Billie’s care; instead, he learns that she seeks his help not to get on with her life but to end it. The paradox of Billie Raitliffe is that despite the sack of inert bones and spastic muscle in which she lives, she is by far the most acutely sensitive and expressive of Moody’s characters, keenly attuned to and appreciative of the pleasures to be had in language, sensation, and human affection. It was exactly that quality that prompted Lou’s eagerness to marry her some fifteen years earlier despite her advancing disease.
Glimpses of Lou’s earlier tenderness in assuming the most unromantic of tasks (catheterizing and diapering his wife, for example) are matched by equally affecting reminders of the couple’s continuing responsiveness to each other long past the point of “normal” sexual engagement. This blending of sexual love and spousal devotion documents the tenacity of human desire.
Another unusual form of sexual love results when Hex takes his mother for a disastrous night out and unexpectedly encounters Jane Ingersoll, a woman with whom he had been infatuated in high school. She has become a single mother of two, outfitted in sufficiently punk fashion to announce her wariness of further attachments. Initially Jane proves as indifferent to Hex as she had been twenty years earlier, for the erstwhile Young Republican misfit of the past is now even less appealing, given his considerable bulk, thick glasses, speech impediment, and general...