Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
Within a single decade, Rick Moody emerged as a dominant figure in the late twentieth century renaissance in realistic fiction following the decline of postmodern experimentalism. His work is notable for its radically innovative prose line and its willingness to investigate profound, often dark questions about the viability of love and family in an oppressive and uninviting contemporary world. Raised in the comfort and privilege of a white, upper-class family (his father was in finance, his maternal grandfather a legendary Manhattan publisher), Hiram Frederick Moody III grew up in the suburban affluence of Fairfield County in Connecticut. He enjoyed a private preparatory school education. Always a shy child, Moody developed a keen interest in reading and had, by his own recollection, already attempted two novels by the sixth grade. He defined the centering emotional event of his childhood as his parents’ divorce in 1970. He then began a painful adolescence of shuffling back and forth between his parents’ residences.
He studied creative writing at Brown University, most notably under novelists John Hawkes and Robert Coover, both of whom encouraged Moody to investigate how experience is brought into coherence using language as a system of understanding. Following his graduation in 1983, Moody studied in the prestigious master’s writing program at Columbia University, completing that program in 1986. At that time, Moody began to suffer from acute depression and nervous anxiety brought about, he would diagnose much later, by the lingering trauma of his absent father. He turned to alcohol and eventually to substance abuse. Quickly, Moody found himself in difficult financial circumstances and struggled to maintain his academic status while holding low-paying jobs which included house painting and fast food service. After being evicted in 1985 he moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, in an effort to save money. There he began to gather materials for his first novel.
That first manuscript, a stark, minimalist narrative focusing on the desperate and disconnected loves and family lives of New Jersey teenagers in the 1980’s, found little interest in the New York publishing community. Ironically, after 1986, Moody was working as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster and later as assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, jobs in which he would read manuscripts and draft rejection notes to would-be writers like himself. Feeling out of step with the editorial tastes at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and falling deeper into substance addiction, Moody applied to doctoral programs at a number of universities. He was turned down by all of them. Finally, in 1987, he checked himself into a rehabilitation facility. Fired by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991, Moody pursued teaching creative writing and accepted a position at Bennington College in Vermont, the first of a number of such appointments.
That year, a small-press editor happened to read the manuscript of Garden State and forwarded it for consideration for the Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award, annually awarded to draw attention to an outstanding work of fiction unfairly ignored by the publishing industry. Moody’s manuscript won, and part of the award was publication of his manuscript. Suddenly more confident, Moody turned to the environment in which he grew up. The result, The Ice Storm, investigates ennui, alcoholic excess, empty sexual escapades, and wounded families in the affluent suburban world. Juxtaposing two families bound by adultery, the novel focuses on their spiritual vacuity one terrifying weekend in 1973 during a fierce Connecticut winter storm. Further, the novel introduces Moody’s growing interest in examining how cultural events resonate within people’s lives by using events of Richard Nixon’s presidency as a metaphoric motif.
The Ice Storm and its film adaptation established Moody’s reputation and allowed him the opportunity to begin publishing his short fiction and essays on pop culture topics in prestigious magazines, most notably in The New Yorker and Esquire. Many of the stories looked, often with deadpan humor, into the problematic world of sexual kinkiness and drug abuse and the seamy life of Manhattan’s streets. Several of Moody’s works began to reflect his growing boldness in experimenting with form, including stories in which a single sentence runs for pages.
It was 1997’s Purple America in which Moody, by his own admission, finally found his stylistic voice. It is the bleak tale of a middle-aged man who returns home to care for his bedridden mother and to deal not only with her death wish but also with an unexpected reunion with a high school crush. Moody foregrounded the prose as he shifted the narrative center in and out of four central characters, creating for each a distinctive voice and boldly testing how much a sentence—and the paragraph—could contain. While he was completing work on the manuscript, his sister died from complications of an automobile crash, a trauma that Moody would explore in two of the best stories in Demonology.
There is in Moody’s vision an unforgiving, even brooding sensibility, an awareness of the role of chance in the universe and a harsh morality that sees the heart as complex and unyielding and isolation as inevitable. That worldview has found expression not only in a collection of essays on the New Testament’s relevance in the current era that Moody coedited but also in Moody’s nonfictional conceptual memoir, The Black Veil. The work tracks his fascination with an ancestor, a troubled minister who accidentally shot a childhood friend and who wore a black veil during most of his adult life, and the story that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote based on the story. The memoir additionally provides an unblinking account of Moody’s descent into addiction following the breakup of his parents. The work probes the nature of confession and the difficulty in exposing vulnerabilities to others.
Clearly influenced by the cultural criticism of both Don DeLillo and Saul Bellow and by the formal experiments of William S. Burroughs and Gertrude Stein, Moody—along with Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace—has helped define the direction of the American novel in the post-Pynchon era.
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