Introduction

Rick Moody 1962-

(Full name Hiram F. Moody, III) American novelist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Moody's career through 2001.

A member of a generation of media-savvy young writers to come of age during the 1970s, Moody has been hailed as one of the most gifted American authors to emerge in the 1990s. Regarded by some critics as the literary successor to John Cheever and John Updike, Moody exposes the despair and family tensions lurking beneath the glossy surface of northeastern American suburbia in much of his work. Moody's fiction is decidedly contemporary in focus and preoccupation, incorporating pop culture references to the music, fashion, and historical events that bear the stamp of his generation. With the success of The Ice Storm (1994), a novel made into a critically acclaimed film by director Ang Lee in 1997, Moody was propelled into the top ranks of contemporary writers. His subsequent experimentation in Purple America (1997) and the short story collections The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven (1996) and Demonology (2000) enhanced his reputation as an adroit and challenging author whose darkly comic vision and postmodern sensibility underscore the vacuity and ironies of modern American life.

Biographical Information

Born in New York, Moody, along with his mother and sister, moved often after his parents' divorce. He grew up primarily in Connecticut, but at age thirteen left home to attend St. Paul's, a boarding school in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a young man, Moody suffered from the absence of his father and struggled with alcohol and drug abuse problems until he eventually institutionalized himself in 1987. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Brown University in 1983, where he studied under writer Stanley Elkin, and a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University in 1986. Moody subsequently worked as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, then as an assistant editor for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Finding a publisher for his first novel, Garden State (1991), proved difficult for Moody. However, despite repeated rejections, it was finally published after the manuscript unexpectedly won the Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award in 1992. His next book, The Ice Storm, initially posted modest sales, although it attracted a national audience upon the release of the movie adaptation starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The death of Moody's sister in 1995, while he was at work on Purple America, had a profound impact on the author and found expression in two stories in Demonology. Moody lives on Fishers Island, a rural location off Long Island, New York. Since 1991, he has taught fiction writing and composition part-time at Bennington College.

Major Works

Much of Moody's fiction revolves around disintegrating family life, which he sees as a microcosm for America and as symptomatic of larger sociocultural issues. His first novel, Garden State, is set in a northern New Jersey suburb during the Reagan era and involves three twenty-something characters: Alice; her sometime boyfriend, Dennis; and her half-brother, Lane, who has recently returned from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. The novel embodies many of Moody's recurring motifs, including disaffected adolescents, alternative rock music, absent parents, and unfulfilled longing for family security. The Ice Storm focuses on two families—the Hoods and the Williamses—in which the narcotic and sexual experimentation of the teenage children mirror their parents' search for meaning and feeling. As an antidote to his sexless marriage, Ben Hood has an affair with Janey Williams, while his wife, Elena, seeks excitement through shoplifting and the era's ubiquitous self-help books. At the novel's climax, the adults attend a spouse-swapping party while their unattended children simultaneously court disaster. Paul Hood tries unsuccessfully to bed a classmate, while Wendy Hood seduces the Williams boys, one of whom wanders off into the aftermath of an ice storm and is accidentally killed when he sits on a guardrail electrified by a downed wire. The story is set in upper-middle-class New Canaan, Connecticut, during Thanksgiving weekend and satirizes the family traditions of the 1970s against the backdrop of President Nixon's impeachment. The conclusion of the novel, however, suggests that even imperfect families are a source of comfort. The short story collection The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven showcases Moody's literary experimentation. The story “Treatment,” for example, is a single sentence in the form of a movie treatment, while “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner” is a term paper in which the student writer notes similarities between the Book of Revelation and his own life. Other stories return to Moody's recurring subjects of loss and the search for family and roots. “The Preliminary Notes” involves an insecure husband who listens in on his wife's phone conversations to determine if she is unfaithful. Nostalgia for the past is a theme of “The James Dean Garage Band,” in which the narrator fondly recalls his earlier days as a musician in a rock band. However, the title story, “The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven,” about the scarred lives of prostitutes, transvestites, and lesbians in New York City's East Village, is much grimmer in tone. The collection concludes with a list of the personal events, books, and records that have shaped Moody's life and aesthetic. Purple America marks a stylistic change in Moody's fiction, including the use of longer sentences and a more playful vocabulary that has elicited comparison to the style of William Faulkner. The novel is told through the eyes of three separate characters: Hex Raitliffe; his mother, Billie; and Lou Sloan, Billie's second husband. Hex is a stuttering alcoholic in his thirties who returns home to care for his terminally ill mother. Billie can only communicate through a computer and wants her son's help to end her life. Within twenty-four hours, Hex struggles to provide care for his mother and to come to terms with his past—including a father who died when he was a boy—and the present—which involves not only a decision about whether he will help his mother die, but also features a pathetic sexual encounter with a woman he adored in high school. Looming over these personal crises, and alluding to the larger cultural and historical context of the novel, is a meltdown at the nearby nuclear power plant where Hex's father and stepfather both worked. The short fiction of Demonology is marked by Moody's further experimentation with form. In “Boys,” a story about two brothers growing up, each sentence begins with the word “boys.” Another piece, “Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13,” is structured like a used book catalogue, while “Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set,” is written to resemble the sleeve notes to an anthology of popular music. “The Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal” is a single sentence about a Ph.D. student who uses literary theory to explain her relationship with a man who won't make a commitment and who she believes must administer a gynecological exam to truly know her. Two other stories—“Demonology” and “The Mansion on the Hill”—explore the pain of losing a sister.

Critical Reception

Moody's fiction has attracted both critical praise and a devoted cult following. Though his award-winning debut novel, Garden State, put him on the literary map, even Moody has agreed with some critics that the book as the apprentice work of a young author. The Ice Storm was praised for its sensitive treatment of adolescent angst and its vivid portrait of Watergate-era suburbia. Critics noted that unlike many coming-of-age novels, such as The Catcher in the Rye, in which adults are reproached, Moody presents the complexity of the family structure without casting summary judgment against the admittedly flawed parents in the story. While Moody's ability to replicate the cultural milieu of the 1970s has been appreciated by many, some critics suggested that the novel's “time capsule” quality caused the story to seem ephemeral. Moody's short story collections, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven and Demonology, have garnered positive response from reviewers, who have commended the author's deadpan humor, impressionistic style, and clever narrative presentations. Despite frequent comparisons to John Cheever, Moody has cited writers Don DeLillo and Samuel Beckett as greater influences on his work. Purple America is regarded by many as Moody's most ambitious work to date. As his writing has grown more experimental in form, critics have responded with mixed enthusiasm. While some critics appreciate his lyrical elongated sentences and such stylistic devices as a rampant use of italics and the substitution of dashes for quotation marks, others find these distracting. However, many reviewers have found Moody's grasp of language to be whimsically intellectual and have seen his odd word usage as a sign of inventiveness rather than mere gimmickry. Likewise, Moody's allusions to overarching societal issues have been alternatively viewed as either shrewd or strained. Despite such criticism, Moody continues to receive critical approval for his unsettling insights and willingness to push the envelope of contemporary American fiction.