Adam Begley (review date 29 May 1994)

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SOURCE: “Entering Gothic Suburbia, Where Dysfunction Romps Across Tidy Lawns,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 29, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following positive review of The Ice Storm, Begley commends Moody's “keen observation and sympathy for human suffering,” though finds shortcomings in the novel's unnecessary “literary flourishes.”]

Novelists don't like to be lumped into categories or ushered into the unwelcome company of other, supposedly similar writers, but mankind is a classifying animal, and besides, really good writers outlast the labels applied to them. Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, a bitter and loving and damning tribute to the American family, belongs to a subgenre I think of as suburban Gothic-tidy lawns and two-car garages, all the vulgar complacencies of affluence, mixed with brooding horror, melodramatic violence, extreme psychological states.

There has been a mini-boom in suburban Gothic in the last year or so: first “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeff Eugenides, then “Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World” by Donald Antrim. Both of these young novelists, like Moody, aim to expose the radical dysfunction of a superficially placid social order. And Eugenides, Antrim and Moody all make expert use of deadpan humor-for they know that the very idea of suburban Gothic, fantastical horror let loose in a prim, orderly neighborhood, is funny in a grim way.

In Eugenides’ novel a flock of teenage sisters commit serial suicide; in Antrim's an elementary school teacher incites his students to torture a classmate to death; in The Ice Storm a young boy wandering through a winter wreckage of downed powerlines is electrocuted when he sits on a roadside guardrail, an instrument of safety transformed into a means of execution. Lethal despair, lethal cruelty, lethal irony—in each case the violence is touched up with comic highlights, the absurd winking at the tragic.

Moody's novel takes place in New Canaan, Conn., during a single night in November 1973. In the background are Watergate, Vietnam and the lingering socio-sexual effects of the Summer of Love. In the foreground is a cataclysmic ice storm, a raw, wet night that turns treacherous with a snap freeze.

Skating awkwardly over the iced landscape is the unhappy Hood family: Benjamin, the father, a sodden securities analyst, primed for a binge; Elena, the mother, facing up belatedly to deep dissatisfactions, ripe for a fling; Paul, the teenage son, slipping from safety into comic-strip fantasy; Wendy, the teenage daughter, who is itching to sample love and sex.

Moody compresses years of estrangement and disillusion into one night of drugs and drinking, seduction and betrayal, felled trees, blackouts, car crashes—enough mayhem to keep the reader cringing in anticipation of the next disaster. But in fact the damage was done before the rain began to fall, before the temperature began to drop, when the Hoods formed bonds based on convention, predictable and soulless like the street plan of a subdivision. There is no communication; the “misshapen affection that bound these people”—love bottled up, gone sour—has no language. And yet they are family, a bad ending that endures.

Moody's contribution to suburban Gothic is a relentless drive to fix the moment. In The Ice Storm, his second novel, he piles up enough period detail—Helen Reddy singing “Delta Dawn,” the Wankel rotary engine—to make the Hood family meltdown seem like a time capsule, a warning for the ages. I was 14 in 1973, and obsessed, like the 13-year-old Wendy, with watching Watergate on TV; I can testify that Moody gets it right. Paul's self-pitying descent into boarding school anomie and his sloppy preppy uniform (wire-frame glasses, slept-in tweed jacket, khakis, untucked shirt) are both uncomfortably...

(This entire section contains 833 words.)

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Moody is more committed to realism than either Eugenides or Antrim; many of his Gothic effects are the consequence of the ice storm. There is the downed powerline, the deadly live wire: “And it danced. The jig of the dervish, of delirious and religious mad persons, of hyperactive children and their weary parents.”

How dangerous when disconnected, the links that power domesticity! Burst pipes flood the Hoods’ house, a cascading stream of water that leaves a brownish “Rorschach stain” in which you can read the trauma of a family in crisis.

I wish Moody had not felt the need to embellish his novel with literary flourishes. His narrator, whose identity is concealed until the last pages, is arch and painfully self-conscious: “Okay, the time has come in this account for a characterization of the mind of God.” No thanks.

A lovely scene in which Benjamin and Wendy nearly make a true father-daughter connection is spoiled by a forced, jokey echo of the famous last paragraph of James Joyce's “The Dead”: “The precipitation,” Moody writes, “fell with relentless uniformity. On nearby communities with less affluent tax bases—Stamford and Norwalk—as well as on New Canaan's wealthy.”

But this is a good book, packed with keen observation and sympathy for human failure. With any luck Moody will one day write a novel that outstrips classification, that launches him into the orbit of writers beyond compare.

Brooke Allen (essay date June 1994)

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SOURCE: “Cheever Country, 1994,” in New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 10, June, 1994, pp. 58–65.

[In the following excerpt, Allen offers a favorable evaluation of The Ice Storm, which she places in the tradition of American WASP novels and contrasts with the fiction of John Updike and John Cheever.]

The landscape is much the same as it was a generation ago. American suburbia has changed remarkably little, despite the advent of malls and bypasses, guns and drugs. Suburbia is a landscape of the mind, a utopian experiment. Its failures may be obvious: the protected model communities have proved no safe haven from divorce, alcoholism, suicide and violence. But the suburban ideal, a planned combination of community and privacy, is still resonant in America's fantasy about itself.

Cheever's and Updike's suburbanites married early. They produced children in the Fifties and spent the next ten or fifteen years moving steadily ahead. Then along came the Sixties to shake them up. But since these were slightly square people, well insulated from artists and intellectuals, it was the Seventies by the time they caught on to swinging and wife-swapping, some five years after the Summer of Love. A number of marriages collapsed, or were severely damaged. Alcohol wreaked its havoc. The kids survived as best they could.

A generation has passed, and these same kids, born in the Fifties, are now not only grown up but nearing middle age. Brought up with every material privilege, given the best education, they might be expected to lead lives similar to their parents’. But the times have dealt out a few surprises, and the thirty years separating the generations have changed the rules. The upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies effected a genuine social revolution. The WASP no longer rules supreme. WASP culture has in fact become faintly ridiculous, one might even say “marginalized.” An Ivy League education is still the ideal, but it no longer automatically opens doors to the professions; to be white, ambitious, bright, upper-middle-class isn't necessarily enough.

The glittering prizes elude this generation's grasp. An intelligent, hard-working young man enters the academic world: turned down for tenure at a second-string college, he becomes a real-estate salesman, by his lights a dismal admission of failure. Another looks for an editing job. Despite his wit and his impeccable literary pedigree, he ends up working not at The New Yorker or The Atlantic but at a lowbrow, mass-readership magazine. A third, perhaps the most brilliant, fears permanence and therefore works as an office temp.

These situations, from a handful of books by youngish authors, prove that the WASP novel is still alive and reasonably well. It has never been a robust genre, for WASPs are by definition bland, often leading dull lives by choice. (Q: What's the WASP's definition of open-mindedness? A: Dating a Canadian.) WASP rules of discourse preclude vigor, straightforwardness, vulgarity. The technique is based on understatement and self-deprecation; the material between the lines is vastly more important than any actual statements in the text. Irony mutes both tragedy and farce. Henry James was of course the genre's grand master; a few gems have been produced in subsequent generations, Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge, for example (far superior to its companion volume, Mr. Bridge), and John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley, as well as the above-mentioned suburban stories of Cheever, Updike, and John Irving. Now the next generation is going over the same territory, with a certain amount of success. They are only too conscious of their progenitors. …

Two young writers who have recently published second novels possess less surface brilliance than Baker but write with an emotional power and moral acuity that gives their work a sustaining value. Rick Moody's The Ice Storm and Douglas Hobbie's The Day are distinguished examples of the WASP tradition in the novel: both, interestingly enough, take place over Thanksgiving, a holiday that seems particularly fraught for the upper classes.

Rick Moody grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the 1970s. He attended St. Paul's and Brown University, worked in publishing, and wrote his first novel, Garden State (1992), which is about working-class kids in New Jersey. He was clearly avoiding his own roots. “Sometimes admitting to my origins in the suburbs feels like admitting to some great impropriety,” he now says. “It feels like a white-collar crime or like a family secret.” Garden State was successful—it won the Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award—but fortunately a friend persuaded Moody to mine the rich material of his own upbringing. Moody accepted the challenge (following the hackneyed but valuable dictum to “write about what you know”) and began work on his new novel. Venturing onto suburban territory, he was well aware of his antecedents: in fact, The Ice Storm can be seen as a pointed response to Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. Updike was dealing with the journey of Rabbit's own generation; what happened to the kids was tangential, though the troubled presence of Rabbit's son Nelson haunts the books. Moody is attacking the same situation from the opposing angle. What is happening to the kids while the parents go their self-indulgent way of alcoholism and adultery?

It is Thanksgiving Friday, 1973, and Moody sets the scene. “Abbie Hoffman was in hiding. … Jerry Rubin was writing for the New Age Journal. Angela Davis had been acquitted. The Beatles were recording solo albums. The war in neutral Cambodia was heating up. (The Khmer Rouge would take Phnom Penh. Lon Nol would soon be deposed.) The energy crisis was getting under way.”

Two New Canaan families are linked by friendship and adultery. The Hoods, Benjamin and Elena, Paul and Wendy; the Williamses, Janey and Jim, Mike and Sandy. The parents are fortyish. Benjamin Hood's “minuscule eyes were the color of antifreeze. … He resembled a longtime funeral director or a salesman of bogus waterfront property. He knew this.” Elena, repressed daughter of the Eisenhower years, is silent and thoughtful. By herself, she reads and reads: Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Primal Scream and Games People Play and Be Here Now and Human Sexual Response and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. She is searching. She and Benjamin have not had sex in a year and a half. “When she saw his penis now, as he showered or dressed for work, she felt no more for it than she felt for any plucked and headless game bird.” Janey Williams, emotionally estranged from her self-involved husband, is on the prowl. She is having an affair with Benjamin for lack of anyone better. Paul Hood is sixteen, Wendy fourteen. Paul is perpetually stoned at his New Hampshire prep school; Wendy is drifting into an experimental sex life. Fourteen-year-old Mike Williams and his slightly younger brother, Sandy, are both learning about sex with Wendy. It's not that the kids’ parents aren't loving and concerned, at least by their standards; it's just that their standards turn out to be pretty inadequate.

The central event is a “key party” the adults attend on Friday night. Key parties were tribal rites of the swinging Seventies: the husbands would drop their housekeys into a bowl, wives would choose a set of keys from the cluster, and couples would recouple accordingly, for that night. Did it all really stop after that, everyone going happily back to their spouses? “Whispers, that fall, at cocktail parties or on the paddle-tennis courts, spoke of unsubstantiated liaisons between those whose night of passion was intended to be singular, unique, unrepeatable.” (Like Rabbit Angstrom, whose own long-term affair, it will be remembered, began at a similar gathering.)

Moody's description of the party is full of marvelous period details. There is the Episcopalian minister who is into EST: “Everything in heaven is fashioned from the mutability of these options constructed in your flow, whether with consciousness or unconsciousness. And that means that your feet rest in heaven. As Werner says, you are the higher power, the supreme being. You are.” There's the music played at this well-heeled suburban party: the theme from the Tribal Love Rock Musical Hair. Best of all is Moody's insertion of the reality factor into the whole scene, as when Elena looks over her potential partners for the evening: she “couldn't imagine whom, of the assembled, she could stand.”

While the adults are cutting these capers, the children are abandoned to their own devices. Paul, in the city, consumes a vile combination of drugs and alcohol and tries to crash Max's Kansas City in the company of a beautiful preppie who also has been abandoned by her family on Thanksgiving. He spends the night in bitter cold on the commuter train, which has been paralyzed by an ice storm. Mike wanders through wintry New Canaan alone. Wendy and Sandy romp on the Williamses water bed and have an adventure involving sex and alcohol.

Tragedy occurs: one of the children dies, a symbolic sacrifice to the parents’ self-indulgence. Again, this harks back to Rabbit and the death of the baby Rebecca Angstrom—the sacrifice of Iphigenia, as Updike has put it. The parents are not directly responsible, but they have spiritually neglected their children, a failure that will haunt them forever. As with Benjamin Cheever's The Partisan,The Ice Storm’s theme is ultimately parental responsibility. America's suburban children, Moody implies, have been ill-served by their parents’ emotional defection. And, though they indulge most of their own whims, the parents themselves are ill-served. As Benjamin Hood says, “loneliness is the music of the spheres around here.”

In fact the parents, who spend so much of their time in the fashionable Seventies study of “belief systems,” have in effect no belief system of their own. They don't even possess the vocabulary to enunciate their beliefs; as with Marquand's George Apley, emotion is not a language they speak. After shouting at Wendy and Sandy for their sexual misdeeds, Jim Williams tries to explain away his own night, spent on the waterbed with Elena:

“Now, sometimes as a marriage gets familiar it starts to age a little bit—this happens sometimes. It just happens that the people who are married—like your mother and I, Sandy, or Benjamin and Elena—get to a point when they want a little something in their marriage. They get to a point when they find themselves, uh, straying away. Look, it's not that complicated. It's sort of the way you might want A.1. sauce on your burger one week and mustard the next. It's that simple. … So we can do this if we want. We can bend these bonds a little bit; we can borrow somebody else for a night and not have it … without endangering our families or anything. Borrow out of affection, right?”

In Moody's novel tragedy and farce mix as casually as they do in nature. Emotion and irony are complementary, not opposed. Here The Ice Storm is greatly superior to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, another recent suburban tragedy. Eugenides cheapens his territory by making it campy; Moody attacks it on its own terms.

Alexander Harrison (review date 5 August 1994)

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SOURCE: “Old-Fashioned Families,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 5, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following review, Harrison offers a favorable assessment of The Ice Storm.]

New Canaan, the setting for Rick Moody's second novel, The Ice Storm, is a suburb from Hell. Understandably, the people who live there have problems. Ben Hood, “the dad in what follows,” thinks love is “close to indebtedness” and has married Elena to pay the debt. She simply believes he proposed “out of lack of imagination.” Their son, Paul, is a “garbage head … a loser,” incapable of spending a straight and sober day at his exclusive boarding-school. During the winter-holiday weekend in 1973, in which the novel takes place, the behaviour of Wendy, the Hoods’ daughter, suggests that the numbing orthodoxy of New Canaan would send anyone into sexual ferment. Even her parents spend Saturday evening at a party where a woman's partner for the night is decided by the car keys she pulls from a bowl.

The novel builds up to this party and its terrible aftermath. And as Paul, having drugged his best friend, cudgels Libbets, an unwilling girl, “with good vibes,” his sister climbs into bed with Sandy Williams, her doomed boyfriend's prepubescent brother. Meanwhile, Elena tries to understand the orgy-to-be in terms which her self-improvement manuals have taught her are important. The remnants of the 1960s counter-culture just screw, young and old alike, in this pernicious New England place. Paul can only survive by being witlessly stoned, disappointed of the eternally unfulfilled promise of “liberated sexuality.” In New Canaan, in 1973, experiments with free love become malignant and destructive affairs. The liberated way in which Jim Williams explains his couplings with Elena to Wendy and Sandy, who are barely in their teens, pushes the reader helplessly in the direction of old-fashioned family values.

At the book's start there is a clear sense that the 1960s are over, since “much was in the recent past … Hendrix … Joplin … Morrison … the Beatles were recording solo albums.” There is layer on layer of contemporary detail—clothes and furniture, television programmes, articles in magazines and comics. Moody has done his research but the result can overwhelm the fact that the book is a retrospective; it exists in the present while it deals with the past. The identity of the suburb is, at first, established by the fact that there are “no answering machines. And no call waiting. No compact disc recorders or laser discs.” With a series of such hints, The Ice Storm asks that we look to today: to the young, who are saturated by the media (like Wendy, for whom “television served as the structured time”), or drugged-up and cynical (like Paul, who knows it's all “relationships and politics and power”).

Rick Moody telescopes time impressively in a novel which is both serious and fully redolent of the cheesy 1970s. He does so while writing about the full terror of holidays and suggesting that, regardless of advances in technology and study, families can give the worst pain.

Ellen Akins (review date 7 August 1994)

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SOURCE: “Voices in the Night,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, p. 15.

[In the following review, Akins offers a positive assessment of The Ice Storm.]

This is not so much a novel as an excavation—of that nearly but not quite extinct entity the nuclear family as it was in those dark ages, the 1970s. The argot, the foibles, the fads and the artifacts: They're all here [in The Ice Storm], meticulously catalogued and historically framed with discussions of the design, politics and groping psychology of the period. In the midst of this exactingly reconstructed rubble we find the Hoods, a family of four. Because the Hoods live in the suburbs—in “the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs”—we may be sure there's plenty to uncover, all manner of unsuspected subterranean doings and undoings. And in fact, the Hoods are having quite a day, which is to say, night.

Informed by insights from Masters & Johnson and “I'm Okay, You're Okay” and Marvel Comics and Creem, these four are playing out the defining act of their family drama—and that they're each doing their parts separately says a lot about what's happening to them. Because of the extended paraphrases and quotations and references that bolster and bracket each character's point of view, the Hoods certainly seem to be emblematic of their time, which makes their emotional isolation, the private and solitary nature of their disintegration, all the more poignant, as if they're cut off even from the sense—a faint comfort—that their problems are as broadly human as they are specific to a particular person, place and date.

It's 1973, the day after Thanksgiving, the place is New Canaan, Conn., and “so let me dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up,” the book begins. The narrator, who promises to reveal his part in all this later, is a tricky one from the start, a singular, sentient being who tells his story from several points of view, no more than one of which he could possibly know in such interior detail. The perspectives thus imagined are the mother's and father's (Elena and Ben), the children's (Paul, 16, and Wendy, 14), and briefly the neighbor boy, Mike's. First of all, Ben: He's waiting in the neighbor's guest room for his mistress, the neighbor's wife, who seems to have eluded him for the moment. While searching for her, he surprises his daughter and Mike in the basement, with their pants down. And so we are set upon the crisscrossing paths of the night, the fumblings and experiments, confessions and discoveries that lead to a grim dawn in which this family's present and future crystallize in the frozen devastation of an ice storm.

Virtually all of these paths take us through the sexual muddlings and imaginings of the family members, from Wendy's rather odd manipulations of the neighbor boys to Paul's wistful attempt to seduce a schoolmate to their parents’ complicated spouse swapping at something called a “key party.” Everyone's confused to begin with and, caught overnight in the weather and their various liaisons, much more confused by the end. What's become clear, though, is that this misalliance of fate, their family, is finally falling apart. When a calamity—senseless, the narrator concedes—treats the Hoods and their neighbors to “the spectacle of a lost future,” we're told, “it brought them together and it drove them apart but maybe this parting was inevitable anyway,” and the same could be said for the Hood family itself.

Though split in perspective among the characters, this story is largely uniform in style, rendered in short sentences, many of them not really sentences but bright staccato beats that hammer home a point or ring a few changes on it or take it one step further. This uniformity draws things together and makes sense if one person is finally responsible for mapping the moments of all the others, but it also occasionally gives the lie to these people's supposed thoughts, especially those of the more-than-precocious Wendy. Paul, however, always rings perfectly true, stuck in adolescence and testing its edges, a boy-man with remarkable insights and remarkable lapses, and the rich, murky wonder of his passages stands out all along as a clue to the source and meaning of the story. And if one clear voice emerges from this dark night of the family, there's hope—as well another indication that what's lurking under the calm surface of the suburbs is great raw material for the novelist.

Richard Eder (review date 20 August 1995)

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SOURCE: “Dropping Out,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 20, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review of The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, Eder commends Moody's narrative skill and humor, but concludes that the stories in this collection are marred by literary artifice and “a lack of authorial conviction.”]

If Rick Moody were an innkeeper instead of a story writer, his guests would admire the striking decor of the rooms but be less pleased, perhaps, at finding Moody lying in the bed.

The title novella and many of the stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven have both a surface and an expressive brilliance, purposefully undermined and distressed in various up-to-date literary ways. There is a cold, comic touch of Donald Barthelme in the obsessive journal of a man who tapes his wife's telephone calls; a suggestion of Woody Allen's hyper-rational schlemiel in the monologue of a student who thinks the Book of Revelations is about himself, and something of the heavy-metal urban chaos of William Vollmann in a third piece—the novella—about drug-wasted lives in New York's hell zones.

The echoes do not diminish Moody's considerable accomplishments. All original music is a pathway through echoes. The fact that they come from so many directions, though, suggests the weakness. Along with the energy and stylistic dazzle, there seems to be a lack of authorial conviction, or perhaps necessity.

True, the stories have themes in common: in some, a scary or ironic portrait of different aspects of contemporary dehumanization; in others, a kind of baleful romance of the big city. But after constructing a device of considerable stylistic force and ingenuity, Moody will let it drop or taper off or disintegrate. It is not a matter of ratcheting up a story an additional notch by turning on it, like the straw dummy in Britain's Guy Fawkes pageant that is built and adorned for the purpose of being exploded. It seems to be a question, rather, of an author who, not quite able either to find or lose himself in his work, casts it aside and steps into its place.

Sometimes the substitution is all but explicit. “A Good Story” begins with Moody discussing it as he tells it, as if teaching a fiction course. This is conditionally fine—there are all kinds of ways to start a story—and it adds a note of tension, particularly since the story itself seems to be taking shape.

A young lawyer of no particular qualities is summoned to the rural estate of his wealthy father to help him deal with something he is too old to handle alone: the disposal of a sick horse. There is a skillful buildup toward what promises to be a scene of confrontation and resolution between the generations. Instead, Moody pulls out with a sudden pat phrase—“it appears that killing things is the job of men”—and follows it with an utterly derailing phrase: “… and then we go on to the last vocation, that transmission of the ache of these encounters, the ache, viz. the construction of good stories.” We've been had. There is no good story, only Moody lying in our bed.

In the strongest parts of the collection, Moody's impingement upon his work is less direct. It comes, in fact, as an abandonment, a trailing off. “The Preliminary Notes” starts as a comically savage self-portrait of a technological control freak. Sensing his wife's growing estrangement, he begins an elaborate phone-tapping ritual. His talk is all about the equipment and recording methods; he speaks of listening to the tapes “when I had quality time—usually in the evenings, with a glass of wine.” A touch of poignancy is suggested along with the savagery, but in the end both fade out inconclusively.

“The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner” also starts off terrifically. A failing college student, shunned by a woman he is obsessed with, stays up all night to scrawl an overdue paper for his religion class. With mad bravura, he interprets St. John's Apocalypse in terms of everything that is happening to him. It is clever and often funny, but the character never comes into focus.

The title novella, which follows several drug-crippled lives through a New York world of porno shops, transvestite pickups and S&M clubs, is written in a brilliant nightmarish style. There is a particularly powerful account of a lesbian trio whose tough-talking leader, a black call girl, is shockingly betrayed by her two white upper-middle-class partners. Then, at the end, the genuine pity and terror that Moody evokes melt away in one unbelievable phrase: “None of us seemed to know the nature of the coincidences that bound us together, as I know now,” the narrator says, “or that junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven.”

Would O. Henry have blushed? Probably not. But we know that Moody is not O. Henry, and he knows we know it. He has dropped out of his story, but not to disappear. He is like a magician who stops midway through the trick, and out of his hat produces something we need much less than a rabbit: himself.

Alexander Laurence (review date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1996, p. 154.

[In the following review, Laurence praises Moody's stylistic experimentation in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven.]

The celebrated author of the innovative novel The Ice Storm surprises us again with a totally unconventional collection of stories [The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven] that explore the idea of form. The title story, a novella actually, contemplates the Lower East Side with its heroin use and its sex clubs, the peep shows of Times Square, bondage, and the art scene. We follow three different characters from separate milieus of society. Rick Moody definitely lives inside of these creepy places as he portrays characters rarely seen, while another side of his brain is very literary. In “The Preliminary Notes” the narrator writes in deposition form a story about taping his wife's phone calls while she is having an affair. One story is based on a term paper dealing with the Book of Revelations, another is written in the form of a film treatment. In “The James Dean Garage Band” we follow the struggles of a failed rock band. Finally in “Primary Sources” we have an autobiography of Moody with footnotes and important books. Moody polishes the world with his sharp-focused prose, and gambles here with a range of styles. The stories reminded me of Calvino and Borges, but updated and not derivative at all, and given an injection of that all-important American energy. Moody is definitely the real thing.

Rick Moody with Matthew Debord (interview date 31 March 1997)

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SOURCE: “Rick Moody: A Nuclear Family Meltdown,” in Publishers Weekly, March 31, 1997, pp. 46–47.

[In the following interview, Debord provides an overview of Moody's life and career and includes Moody's comments on his fiction, literary beginnings, and the publication of Purple America.]

Rick Moody digs black: black-leather motorcycle jacket, black jeans, black shirt, black combat boots and black horn-rimmed glasses. The car he's rented to tool around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during a stint at Yaddo, is white, but that seems beyond his chromatic control. “They're all either white or teal, right?” he says, steering with both hands, as though maybe driving is something he undertakes as infrequently as a haircut. The short ride to Madeline's Espresso Bar takes us by the historic Lincoln Baths, and the 36-year-old author casually recommends that PW go for a soak in the barium-filled water, which he claims, is widely renowned for its curative properties.

Moody ought to know: his latest novel from Little, Brown, Purple America, conjoins two fundamental American fears, nuclear power and terminal disease, and does so with such veracity that the author comes off as an expert in both areas. Backed by a $75,000 marketing campaign and a first serial sale to the New Yorker, the novel also raises the stakes on the widely praised writer's career. A bridgehead American novel—300 pages of richly textured, lyrical prose that emphatically favors compassion over glib ironies—Purple America is a big risk, but one from which Moody refuses to shrink. “It's like being a composer,” he suggests, between sips of tea. “First you write the string quartets, then you tackle the symphony, but inevitably, you feel like you gotta try for the opera” Purple America features three disparate members of a family slouching toward meltdown: Dexter “Hex” Raitliffe, a dithering mid-30-something who's fast outgrowing his slacker affectations; Billie Raitliffe, Hex's mother, suffering from a terminal neurological disorder that has rendered her speechless, immobile and incontinent; and Billie's second husband, Lou, a retiring nuclear-reactor employee who has abandoned Billie. Moody's own encyclopedic authorial presence visits the story in torrents, supplying explanations of everything from the Babcock and Wilcox boiling-water reactor to the history of U.S. Interstate 95. A matrix of discrete accidents, most threateningly a radioactive leak, provides the rudiments of the plot that Moody uses to huff his characters toward their ultimate confrontation, after each has received the literal and figurative bruises the novel's title implies. For Moody, the novel represents a tremendous leap: “My work has been received as less about emotion than ‘literature’ but it's not that way to me at all. I feel that Purple America is a book about emotional predicaments, a book about love.”

Purple America is Moody's third novel, after 1992’s Pushcart Editor's Book Award-winning Garden State, 1994’s The Ice Storm and a 1995 story collection whose titular piece, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, was the first novella to run in its entirety in the Paris Review since Philip Roth's “Goodbye, Columbus.” This is the book that should finally rid Moody of the WASPish reputation that dogged his first two novels, and that came to a head with The Ice Storm, which witnessed the author proclaimed by Vogue as his generation's successor to Updike and Cheever—a critical assessment he finds “ridiculous.”


Despite his impeccable WASP credentials—an affluent Connecticut upbringing, boarding school at St. Paul's, a B.A. from Brown, a Columbia M.F.A. and a maternal grandfather who once published the New York Daily News—Moody has also put in time in the literary-fiction school of hard knocks. Getting Garden State into print was a frustrating episode on which he would rather not dwell. The novel's “sole ambition,” Moody comments, “was to be finished” A portrait of dead-end New Jersey post-teens struggling for epiphanies in a ruined landscape, “it's clearly the work of a 26-year-old writer, living in Hoboken,” he says. (He resides now in Brooklyn Heights, near his best friends, and fellow novelists, Jeff Eugenides and Donald Antrim.)

Moody and his agent at the time, Eric Ashworth, made the rounds with Garden State, only to see it languish. Meanwhile, he hung out in the East Village and supported himself by laboring in the belly of the very beast he was trying to conquer, first as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, then as an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. News of the Pushcart Prize surprised the increasingly desperate writer, who had given Garden State up for dead and received rejections from every doctoral program he had applied to. “The message came in from Bill Henderson [Pushcart's publisher] on a pink ‘While You Were Out’ note.” Moody remembers, “I was so skeptical about my luck changing that I didn't even call him back at first.” His retrospective incredulity at his own good fortune offers a refreshing counterpoint to the bright-young-thing albatross that continues to encumber the author.

Moody was fired from FSG in 1991—a decision he maintains was appropriate, though he declines to explain the circumstances. The unpleasant event, however, signaled a turning point in his life. He had begun his second novel, The Ice Storm, during the bleak Garden State period. By the time he finished, in late 1992, he had a new agent, Melanie Jackson (“a national treasure”) and a book under his belt, two assets that made placing The Ice Storm an encouraging prospect. The manuscript was won at auction by editor Julie Grau, at Joni Evans's short-lived Turtle Bay Books.

Turtle Bay went belly-up on the verge of Moody's contract signing, but Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown—who had rejected Garden State, and who initially passed on The Ice Storm—snared Moody's story about the miserable lives of two families riding out heavy weather in New Canaan, Conn., in 1973. “Michael and I are like John Cale and Lou Reed,” says Moody, ever quick to draw analogies between writing and alternative music. “We benefit from friction. He's always been an editor who's unflinching about changing things in my work and giving me, when necessary, a hard time.”

The Ice Storm doesn't perfectly mirror the author's adolescence (he lived in New Canaan for only three years, after his parents divorced), but it represents with startling acuity a threshold moment in American life, when the nation's unquestioning trust in the reliability of fathers, from Richard Nixon to the parents of the post-war generation, began to collapse. The Connecticut suburbs—and their '70s flirtation with the sexual counterculture—provided Moody with just the sort of suggestive raw material he required to become, for better or worse, a New York writer who had most definitely arrived.

Pietsch printed 15,000 copies in hardcover, but initial sales were modest. “I think it's hyperbolic to dwell on the positive critical attention that the book received,” says Moody, “because the New York Times Book Review ignored it, which demoralized me.” New Canaan, by contrast, paid attention to the novel's unflinching examination of suburban infidelity. “I was tarred and feathered in the local press,” Moody says, with a flicker of iconoclastic glee.

Yet the novel gradually made Moody a minor literary celebrity. The “Club Vertex” comic, drawn by Steve Dillion, which Moody conceived for Details magazine in 1995, was one of the ways he responded to the pressures of fame. “It was too short, but I loved doing it,” says Moody, a longtime comics devotee. The story is more explicitly biographical than what Moody's fans are accustomed to expect from a writer who guards his private life. Confronted with a book tour, the author takes a cue from Andy Warhol and hires an actor to impersonate him. The surreal fugue that follows is vintage Moody; by the final panels, it's impossible to determine anymore who the real Rick Moody is, so thoroughly has the writer become enmeshed with his mercenary PR persona.

A Warner paperback edition of The Ice Storm hit stores in 1994 and will soon be joined by a Little, Brown paperback rerelease of Garden State. A film version of The Ice Storm, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, will arrive at theaters in September. “I had very little to do with the film,’ says Moody. “I offered suggestions, a couple of which were seriously entertained, and I met with the actors—Kevin wanted to know stuff like what kinds of ties my father wore—before they started shooting. I was on the set two days, and in the editing room once.”

In general, however, Moody finds film to be philosophically antithetical to his literary passions. “Cinema doesn't lend itself to an investigation of interior states,” he says, “and those are what most interest me.”

This is a huge understatement. Interior states enthrall Moody, in much the way they have the authors who most influenced him: Bellow, Pynchon, Gaddis, his Brown mentors John Hawkes and Angela Carter (“They explained everything to me: what to read, how to live, what to eat”) and, above all, Don DeLillo, the writer whose development Moody's most closely resembles. “I see myself as being precisely between the farthest reaches of experimental prose and the most conventionally realistic tradition,” Moody says. Mastering the depiction of interior states, however, has involved strenuous labor.

“With The Ice Storm, I discovered that I could sustain a longer narrative,” Moody reflects. “That's why that book is as user-friendly as it is. The style is restrained—I'm learning about how to work with the novel as a form. I found my real voice about halfway through writing the stories collected in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, by trying to approach language organically. Instead of superimposing an idea of what style is supposed to be, I allowed voice to emerge without restraints. That style, perhaps unfortunately, is characterized by digression, really long sentences, and an improvisatory tone.”

This admission returns Moody to the question of his audience, which has come to anticipate from him either gritty urban picaresques, strewn with grim sex and noxious landscapes; or suburban tableaux, littered with the jetsam of his own '70s youth—Tang, Hush Puppies, adulterous dalliances, government cover-ups—all delivered with a depth of understanding that has earned Moody accolades from a readership that believes him to be hard-wired into their collective cultural anxiety. Will they receive Purple America with similar verve?

“The numbers don't mean anything to me,” he contends. “What matters is finding people who adore literature. I think the literary audience in America is potentially enormous, and that what sells books is not a degree-zero style and a really manipulative plot. What sells books is telling the truth. I was wrestling with lofty ideas—the American Consciousness—in Purple America, and so I'm willing to take a little heat for being difficult.”

Moody is a man of careful, some might say prickly, distinctions. When asked if he's obsessive about detail, he replies: “I would say I'm obsessive, and I'm interested in detail.” Purple America is not a postmodern, but a “late modern,” novel, not a book about language, but “conversation.” In a more pompous writer, such hair-splitting might come across as evasiveness. Not with Moody, who is almost never evasive, but often scaldingly honest, especially when it comes to his appetite for contradiction. This is, after all, an artist who briefly considered attending a seminary, and who freely confesses to being a churchgoer, but who refuses to be tagged as a moralist.

At 35, has Moody at last to begun to relish his success? “I'm so plagued by doubt that I wake nights, afraid that I'm a total fraud,” he says. “But I'm beginning to feel that I deserve some of what's happened to me. I want to be an American writer. I happen to be a rabid fan of the literature of the century, and I'm going to go where I go.”

All the rest of us need to do is keep up.

David Nicholson (review date 8 April 1997)

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SOURCE: “Taking Care of Mother,” in Washington Post, April 8, 1997, p. B2.

[In the following review of Purple America, Nicholson finds the novel hindered by Moody's indulgent prose and “stylistic quirks.”]

This novel about a day in the life of a troubled New England family opens with a scene of almost unbearable intensity as Dexter “Hex” Raitliffe bathes, clothes and spoon-feeds his mother, who's crippled by a debilitating multiple sclerosis-like disease. It's a poignant four pages that reaches for, and sometimes achieves, an almost religious solemnity: “Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die whosoever in this instant of sorrow and reverence, knows the answers to why roses bloom, why wineglasses sing, why human lips, when kissed, are so soft, and why parents suffer, he shall never die.

If the rest of Purple America were as good as its opening section, the novel would be un-put-downable. But the same qualities that make the opening good—tour de force prose, and a scrupulous, unflinching eye (the descriptions of Billie Raitliffe's “useless body,” “sclerotic limbs” and “stalactites of drool” are almost pornographically frank, but terribly moving)—ultimately make the novel eminently put-downable. In the end, it's like listening to an album by one of the young jazz musicians whose reverence for the music is exceeded only by his prodigious technique. Rick Moody has got some awesome chops, but sometimes they get in the way and you find yourself paying attention to the writing, instead of feeling what he wants you to feel.

Alcoholic, drug-taking, stuttering Hex (the nickname was easier for him to pronounce as a child) has come home to Connecticut to take care of his mother because his stepfather, Lou, has left. “I have come to a time when I can no longer care for you,” Lou tells Billie in the note he leaves on her lap-top computer with its speech-synthesizer software. “I can't watch you this way. Your poverty has tired me out.”

Billie is weary unto death as well, and so early in the novel she makes Hex agree to help her commit suicide, citing the pleasures she would like to enjoy again—“I would like to play the harp. … I would like to polish an antique table. I would like to wear heels and take them off. I would like to drive up to the front doors along these streets and give the neighbors a piece of my mind. Just for the fun of it”—and knows she never will.

I don't know about you, but I'd sure like to get to know better (just for the fun of it) the fictional character, who would do those things, especially that last. (Elsewhere, Billie's described as the kind of woman who “had been able to put the awkward at ease; she had been able to comfort children; she had been able to sweet-talk truculent shopkeepers.”) Unfortunately, Billie shares the novel with Hex and Lou, and the story unfolds from their points of view as well as hers. This is too bad because, set beside Billie's suffering, and her nobility in the face of it, Lou's callowness seems despicable. (For all his musings and interior monologues we never quite feel why he left Billie, nor do we understand why he considers coming back.) Worse, Hex's self-inflicted pain seems almost trivial. His is all-too-familiar late-20th-century angst with its roots in his stutter, having been overweight as a child, a time when he also witnessed his father's collapse.

From time to time Moody renders Hex almost sympathetic, as when he sums up his character's utter incompetence with women: “They all seemed to have an unspeakable perfection at first. But then he learned, anew, that he was without the passwords, without the signet rings, without the secret handshakes of love.” And he puts us square in the middle of Hex's conflicted feelings—glad “he still has a mother,” he's also “fed up with comforting and self-sacrifice, the very ideas make him sick.

Still, there's that look-Ma-no-hands showoff quality to some of the prose. That powerful opening scene is (mostly) all one long sentence with the first period almost lost in the thicket of words. Equally off-putting are some of Moody's stylistic quirks. He abhors quotation marks and italics appear seemingly at random: “He also stops to check the oil.” At its worst, the prose calls attention to itself when it ought to be transparent, as if the author didn't quite trust his instincts and was making words substitute for genuine feeling.

Comparisons may be odious, but throughout this admirable novel about the accumulation of tangled relationships and resentments we call family, I kept thinking of Night of the Weeping Women and Rootie Kazootie, two novels by the North Carolina writer Laurence Naumoff. Those tales about the awful things people do to each other in the name of love career wildly between manic humor and unbearable sadness. I missed that kind of spirit here.

Michael Frank (review date 20 April 1997)

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SOURCE: “Purple Haze,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 20, 1997, p. 12.

[In the following review, Frank maintains that Purple America is “an original and reverberative novel” despite finding shortcomings in the novel's characterizations and unsatisfying ending.]

Purple America, is a robust book. It is a book whose capacious arms reach up out of the bold second sentence—four pages long and surprisingly assured—to embrace a striking range of thought, memory and feeling. These arms manage to grasp people longing and people loving; people seeking and people struggling; people in deep distress, both physical and psychological; and people inhabiting a land that is in its own distress—a land that is purple the way storm clouds are purple and nuclear explosions are purple, yet also the way mountains wear this hue, with purple majesty. The themes Moody has taken on in this, his third novel (following Garden State and The Ice Storm), never lack ambition. They may not always be seamlessly integrated into his storytelling but, at its best, the storytelling is energetic enough to propel the reader through a remarkable weekend in the life of Moody's hero, the blighted and beleaguered Hex Raitliffe.

Purple America captures the world in a day, specifically Hex's world, on an early November weekend, Friday afternoon to Saturday morning. Moody's paradigm is a staple of American letters: the grown child, typically a son, returning to the scene of his boyhood and youth to confront or comprehend some troubling aspect of his past. In Hex's case, past and present are intertwined in the person of his ailing mother, Billie Raitliffe, who is suffering from a degenerative neurological disease in suburban Fenwick, Conn. Confined to her wheelchair or bed, losing control over her bowels, her bladder and her speech—but never her spirit—Billie is abandoned on this Friday afternoon by her caretaker and Hex's stepfather, Lou Sloane. She summons Hex home and, speaking through the computer she uses to communicate, asks him to help her end her life when the time comes that she can no longer operate the keyboard and is rendered, therefore, completely mute.

Hex, properly Dexter, Raitliffe is ill-equipped to help his mother face this critical juncture. Stuttering and alcoholic, Hex lives up to his nickname, which he arrived at in his youth through a piece of verbal circumnavigation, the letter “h” tripping him up far less than the letter “d.” A trust-fund kid who grew up to be an ineffectual publicist, Hex was hexed, it seems, virtually from birth: He was an overweight child with a speech impediment who lost his father when he was 10, tried to commit suicide when he was in college and still retains, at 37, an adolescent capacity for self-indulgence crossed with an ageless capacity for self-sabotage. Moody audaciously sets this afflicted figure in the most morally and psychologically challenging of contexts: the moment in life where a man's deepest manhood is assayed and he must discover whether he can care for a dying parent, even it that care means bringing about a parent's death.

This charged domestic crisis is interleaved with a mechanical crisis at the nearby Millstone Nuclear Power Station, where Lou Sloane, a devoted company man for the last 15 years, has taken the fall for some euphemistically termed “emissions” that have leaked into both the Atlantic Ocean and the New London press. Before fleeing his former life entirely, Lou attends a farewell party at the plant, where an even more significant contamination develops. Unfortunately, the symbolic parallel Moody draws between these two troubled nuclear families, Raitliffe and Millstone, is heavy-handed and his meticulous detailing of the literal nuclear crisis lacks the humanizing dimensions that so distinguish his writing when the Raitliffes come before his lens.

The Millstone passages are at their most alive when Moody enters Lou's mind and renders a believably sympathetic portrait of a man who abandons his ailing wife. We are told that Lou married Billie knowing that she was sick and would grow sicker still because she had a face “all chiseled with wisdom, smarts, heartache, all beautiful like a flock of birds scared up off the cove, all beautiful like the sound of cellos, all beautiful like the morning after a first snowfall, all beautiful with a life fully lived.” Moody builds up this affecting connection and then unravels it again as Lou concludes that he “wasn't guilty for surviving and being vigorous” and that “it was all right to leave.” Whether a man of such fine, indeed refined, feeling will stay away is one of the psychologically suspenseful questions that animate a novel where the plot in the foreground is ultimately quite simple.

Moody takes a similar approach to the evening's parallel action, Hex's ministering to Billie. As he bathes and dresses his mother and takes her out to dinner these relatively undramatic events are opened up by Moody's rich excursions into Hex's past and inner life and even richer excursions into the past and inner life of Billie, who is the novel's most vivid and poignant figure. Locked into the capsule of her enfeebled body, Billie is nonetheless deeply dimensional, a woman who loved two husbands, mothered devotedly and has succeeded in remaining intact, in spirit and in psyche, despite her devastating illness. Early on in the novel, Moody sets the tone for this portrait by capturing a key piece of Billie's thinking: “If there is in her no evidence of any perceptible language, who is to blame for that? If perception is required for language, well then, it's a pretty faulty design. Inside her, language dances on. As does memory.”

Indeed language, the difficulty and complexity of expression, emerges as one of the novel's running motifs. Moody cleverly pairs the stuttering Hex with the near-mute Billie, two crippled speakers who are charged with conducting the most significant conversation of their lives. And the language they use, like the language of the wider novel, is a stellar accomplishment, highly textured and deftly shifting between omniscient and first-person narration. Moody creates voices that are intimate and others that are distant. He dispenses with quotation marks entirely and combines prose and dialogue in a rich verbal soup, much varied by the use of italics, em dashes and ellipses. Many of his sentences are long and operatic, great gusts of language that sweep the mincing phrases of minimalism into the high dusty reaches of some linguistic attic.

Inevitably, too, there is the language of romance. When Hex takes Billie out to dinner, he meets Jane Ingersoll, a girl he once longed for in his youth. A savvy, motorcycle-riding single mother with punkish green hair, Jane is, at first, far from charmed by Hex's dishevelment, drinking and naive pick-up conversation, but when Billie suddenly appears to have a seizure, Jane finds herself pitching in and helping Hex out. Although tending to the urine-soiled Billie would seem an unlikely catalyst for love, Jane is seasoned enough to recognize that “romance is bad interior lighting, convenience stores, bowling on the league nights, seaside towns in winter, empty main streets. Romance is in the hearts of people who have abandoned romance. It thrives best in rooms like this, single-occupancy ladies’ rooms where women give up the ghost.”

And so Jane joins the cast of characters who inhabit this long, dark Connecticut night. A woman of experience and feeling, she makes a touching mother-to-mother connection to Billie, and her growing attraction to Hex—the flawed Hex, whom she resists improving in her imagination—remains credible, at least up to their desperately sad sexual encounter. Here, when Hex is revealed at his most disturbed, Jane's empathy begins to verge on the improbable.

This is, in fact, one of the first moments the reader slips out from under the spell of Moody's narrative and begins to wonder some about Hex, this man who needs to tie up a woman in order to become aroused by her. Our wondering accelerates as the novel reaches its conclusion, which seems too melodramatically drawn for a book where actions and states of mind are otherwise so painstakingly depicted. While no one would expect a movie-of-the-week disquisition on euthanasia from so nuanced a writer, there is a hastiness to the book's last laps that feels disjunctive. Partly this is caused by the way Moody loops around the critical moment, leading the reader to it from different angles, but the more fundamental cause seems to be Hex himself.

Surprisingly, given the amount of time we spend in his company, Hex's parts never completely congeal into the necessary whole. While it is true that his father died when he was young, Hex has such a loving and, in many ways, superior mother that one questions why he emerged from his childhood as damaged as he did. And there are gaps. We never quite see into Hex's past with the emotional acuity we see into the other characters’ pasts—the period between his late adolescence and his late 30s is mostly blank for example, as is the entire complexion of his present life in New York. Moody is so infatuated with Hex's downward drunken spiral that he doesn't entirely penetrate the man doing the falling. He relies instead on the hexed aspects of Hex, the more symbolic origins of his distress. Prominent among these is the fact that his father helped develop nuclear weapons during the war. Father and stepfather both with nuclear careers? It is one of the book's more awkward thematic pairings.

In countless other ways, though, Purple America remains an original and reverberative novel. In Billie Raitliffe, Lou Sloane and Jane Ingersoll, and in many of the elements that constellate anguished Hex Raitliffe, Rick Moody presents people at key moments of transition in their complicated quests for love, freedom, maturity and death. In this long night's journey into day, Moody delivers a suburban America where a prolonged adolescence is challenged with facing adulthood and comes up markedly, but movingly, short.

Andy Solomon (review date 11 May 1997)

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SOURCE: “A Full Day: Rick Moody's Rich, Dazzling Novel of 24 Hours in the Life of a Troubled Family,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 11, 1997, p. 5.

[In the following review, Solomon offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

Rick Moody's extraordinary third novel [Purple America] covers just one fateful day in the lives of the troubled Raitliffe family, yet seldom has an author crowded so much substance into 24 hours.

Billie Raitliffe, 70, has spent two decades in her opulent Connecticut home wasting away with a neurological disease. She has lost her eyesight, her speech, her muscular functions and finally her will to live. And now, even her second husband, Lou Sloane, has left her. Lou's desertion, announced in the apparently heartless form of a note typed on her computer, has summoned Billie's only son, aptly named Hex, from his foundering Manhattan job as a free-lance publicist. But as the alcoholic, stuttering, 38-year-old ne'er-do-well begins ministering to his helpless mother, we quickly see he cannot care even for himself.

This grim threesome—a hopelessly ill woman wishing only to die, the husband who has deserted her and the son mired in fecklessness—offers slender ground on which to build attachment in a reader. Therein lies one facet of Moody's genius. Working against the grain of their slight potential, he renders each character so empathetically that soon each is gripped tight within our sympathy.

Moody, 36, who declares his greatest interest lies in “interior states,” summons our compassion by braiding stream-of-consciousness passages by each character.

Because we see Hex's life with Hex's eyes, we do not judge his rapid fluctuations between concern for his mother and resentment. We do not judge him when he takes her to a local restaurant and becomes distracted at the sight of Jane Ingersoll, for whom he has pined since 9th grade. On the contrary, as the jaded but benevolent Jane, now the single mother of two sons, a woman once vibrant but now only “comfortable and sad,” helps Hex attend his incontinent mother in the ladies’ room, the impromptu tryst becomes perversely romantic: “Romance,” Jane muses, “is bad interior lighting, convenience stores, bowling on the league nights, seaside towns in winter, empty main streets. Romance is in the hearts of people who have abandoned romance.”

Through Billie's failing eyes we see the burden her life has become. Unable to bathe or use the bathroom alone, isolated, she asks her son to help her die. Only death can afford a dignified end to her perpetual anguish and humiliation.

Lou Sloane, the wife deserter, ironically becomes most sympathetic of all, as in his viewpoint we see the dwindling gifts reserved for age. His desertion, we learn, has come after 15 years of devoted care when he forced himself to accept that Billie had given up. And it came the day Lou lost his management job at a deteriorating nuclear power plant in the wake of a potentially catastrophic radioactive leak, an event tying together several plot strands.

It ties Lou to Billie's first husband, Allen, in two ways. Like Allen, Lou has abandoned Billie. And like Lou, Allen had an ominous connection to nuclear power, taking part in post-World War II A-bomb tests that, Moody suggests, may have led to Allen's premature death. Now Lou, too old to restart his career, has taken the fall for a mishap that could render the Connecticut coast and groundwater fatal.

As various types of terrifying death weave through the richly textured narrative, Purple America grows to suggest a “Gatsby” two generations later. As in “Gatsby,” its characters are Midwesterners who've come back east, hopefully building their fortunes on ground that turns illusory. Allen even tried to deny his origins, nurturing “the idea that he was a Yankee, that his roots were entwined with the origins of the nation.” But at the end of the 20th Century, the East's pipes and walls, in buildings and in bodies, decay and crumble.

At a basic level this is also a love story, or rather a heartbreaking inquiry into how much damage love can sustain and still survive. Moody constantly tests words Shakespeare wrote at about his age, asking if love can still be love if it alters when it alteration finds.

While it might seem a blasphemous assertion, readers also may sense Moody's kinship to the young bard in his exuberance at the possibilities of language. Self-consciously artful but rarely obtrusive, Moody's prose dazzles with labyrinthine sentences of Faulknerian length. Its opening passage rings with biblical cadences, into the middle of which he tosses a Zen koan, all describing Hex giving his mother a bath. So rich, in fact, is this book that it demands to be read at least twice.

With that uncertainty common to artists possessing a high internal standard of greatness, Moody recently confessed in Publishers Weekly, “I'm so plagued by doubt that I wake nights, afraid that I'm a total fraud.” You can go back to sleep, Rick Moody. Purple America leaves no doubt you are the genuine article.

Paul Maliszewski (review date Fall 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Purple America, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 226–27.

[In the following review, Maliszewski offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

In a traditional allegory characters stand in for their qualities. Goodness, Courage, and Charity stride about, going head-to-head and hand-to-hand with their well-known evil twins. In both The Ice Storm, his last novel, and Purple America, Rick Moody writes a kind of demographic allegory. Characters in the novel are at once people in an unfolding drama as well as a segment of the American population, recognizable pieces of the most recent census, say, people of a certain educational background, a certain size house, a certain quality of clothing, a certain grade of household appliances.

The Raitliffes, a nuclear family in the early stages of meltdown, are the primary characters in this novel, and Billie, her son Hex, and Lou Sloane, Billie's second husband, are real to more than their own emotions. Reality here is not just the frayed inner reality of characters in trouble; there are national troubles afoot as well, and the characters are never separate from them. These crises and conflicts that summon Hex from New York City, cause Lou to leave Billie, and bring Billie to the point where she wishes to die would never survive a summary. Suffice it to say that the novel never feels overburdened with too much conflict or, more miraculously, ruined by a resolution that's too tidy.

What distinguishes Purple America is not its family plot, but what Moody does in addition to it. His novel is as rich in specifics as it is in generalities, patterns, economic forces, social history, and cultural observations, all the huge, gravitational movements of people toward some state of mind nobody has a name for yet. Some passages begin in generality: “Misfits and idiot savants, coveters of weapons-related data, fundamentalists, borderline personalities, pot smokers, people who fell through the cracks of a franchise-fueled economy; these were the guardians of the atomic age.” This roll call of types is followed by Lou Sloane's closer observation of one such guardian—“Dave McCluskey, his name was”—who is just one individual at a nuclear power plant where both are employed.

Surprisingly, generalities and specifics work well together. The writing on large patterns that overcome characters lends credence to the specific predicaments of those characters. Similarly, specifics insure that the generalities never lapse into the universal. Micro and macro, specific and general, Purple America is at once set specifically in Connecticut and, generally, in a wider world. This is a family story that is unafraid to be larger than the dinner table, weightier than the average couch, and not so still as the view from many fictional windows. Moody has found a way to take the family narrative and open it up to what's forever outside and often unacknowledged. Purple America is an inviting and generous novel.

Daphne Merkin (review date 29 September 1997)

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SOURCE: “Family Matters,” in New Yorker, September 29, 1997, pp. 86–7.

[In the following excerpt, Merkin offers a tempered assessment of the film adaptation of The Ice Storm.]

Here's what I can't figure out about The Ice Storm, the intelligent but curiously remote movie that's been made from Rick Moody's novel: Is the anomie—the soul rot—that eats away at everyone in it best attributed to suburbia, to the seventies, or to the human condition as exemplified by the involutions of Yankee character? The movie is set in New Canaan, Connecticut, and affluent suburbs are always suspect—suggesting, as they do, an implicitly failed American ideal, with loneliness and anxiety lurking behind the white picket fences and well-clipped lawns. Then again, there is the retrospective absurdity of the decade itself, with its touchy-feely notions of sexual openness and “self-realization.” To this end, Ang Lee, the director, has re-created the year 1973 down to the last incriminating detail: water beds, crocheted vests, the Watergate hearings, and couples therapy. And yet the two families at the center of the movie act so disconnected and dazed—so, well, dysfunctional, except that the word hadn't yet come into use, sparing us the need for further descriptives—that the temptation to blame the movie's bleakness on the nature of family life itself is strong. Or perhaps the weather is the culprit here: one of those relentlessly gray Northeastern winters capped by a freak storm, which serves as both metaphor and explanation for the desolate mood that bears down on the unhappy adults and the even unhappier adolescents.

From its first shot of an ice-encrusted train waiting on a deserted stretch of track, The Ice Storm is obsessed with time and place, almost to the exclusion of narrative. We are provided with glimpses of almost-scenes: a dorm room featuring an enormous bong; a pretty girl in a literature seminar who earnestly identifies with Dostoyevsky because he is “existential”; a boy on a train ride home from prep school for Thanksgiving, reflecting that “a family is your own personal antimatter, the void you emerge from.” Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is married to the silently despairing Elena (Joan Allen), who shoplifts cosmetic items from the friendly neighborhood pharmacy and talks to their children (Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci) as though she'd never met them before. Ben is given to fussy neckwear—ascots, and turtlenecks layered under his shirts—and is having a halfhearted affair with his next-door neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), who specializes in inexplicably bitchy behavior. When he tries to engage her in postcoital conversation, fumbling around for some emotional closeness, she interrupts him with the withering observation “I have a husband, I don't particularly feel the need for another.” She is clearly a woman who considers herself shortchanged by life in New Canaan, and has coolly retreated into her own head; even the sexual transgressions of her two sons (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) don't elicit much of a reaction from her beyond the statement that “a person's body is his temple” and allusions to puberty rites in Samoa.

The story, which culminates in a disastrous couples-swapping “key party,” benefits from the same gently ironic touch that Lee brought to his trilogy of films about the clash between old and new Chinese values. He's less interested in assigning blame for all the misery than in simply documenting it, and showing how it spreads and gets absorbed. At times, though, his approach seems so precise, so scrupulously neutral, as to verge on the clinical. (He isn't helped much by James Schamus's screenplay, which has some very good patches of dialogue but is short on exposition.) Still, in its refusal to provide explanations, The Ice Storm is never less than intriguing to watch—if a bit baffling. I kept expecting everything—the infidelities, the aimlessness, the casual shoplifting—to be resolved in the scene after next, but it doesn't happen that way. There is no triumphant burst of communication, no message-waving final moment. There is instead the pure, impartial gesture of the movie's ending: the small, relieved smile that comes over a boy's face as he waits in a train station and spots his family coming to get him, shaken but intact in the wake of the storm.

Frank Moher (review date December 1997–January 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Way It Was,” in Saturday Night, Vol. 112, No. 10, December 1997–January 1998, p. 14.

[In the following review of The Ice Storm, Moher objects to Moody's portrayal of New Canaan suburbanites as effete and aimless, citing as evidence his own positive experiences in New Canaan as a teenager during the early 1970s.]

I entered high school in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1969, which makes me precisely contemporary with the teenage characters in Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm, now a movie by Ang Lee. The Ice Storm is an anthropological dig into post-sixties confusion and suburban ennui. It makes New Canaan out to be a sort of Peyton Place with bell-bottoms, a “desolate village” where parents swap mates at “key parties” and their children are as forlorn as abandoned puppies. But it all looked pretty different to a thirteen-year-old kid recently arrived off the Canadian prairies.

I had gone to the States after the death of my parents, to live with my older sister's family. While I wasn't among what the book calls “the half-dozen poor boys of New Canaan High,” neither were we in the ranks of the town's wealthy. My friends were, though.

Moody's novel presents the adolescents of the community as pathetically gormless. To me they were all handsome and polished, even the geeks. (I was leading the life of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby without ever having read the book.) The children of New Canaan introduced me to the “progressive dinner,” whereby we dressed up like our parents (or, in my case, like their parents), in suits, or sweater and slacks, or long dresses, and went from home to home, hors d'oeuvre at one, main course at another, until finally we were picked up in Town Cars and Fiats at the end of the night. This was a good deal different from hopping the bus home from the A&W, which is what I would have been doing back in Edmonton.

The book also presents them as having the sexual restraint of horses. Our social life centred around the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I remember some futile wrestling between my best friend and his girlfriend, but between my girlfriend and me nothing more than dosed-mouth kissing. I'd suggest this had something to do with the religious setting, except that Moody makes it clear his characters’ lives are firmly anchored by church clothing drives and bake sales too. Must have been the Lutherans.

It may be that our elders were up to no good, though I have to say that my friends’ parents didn't look like roues. What I did know was that many of them were very powerful. As Moody writes: “America rose and fell on the melody of New Canaan's songs of the economy.” And it wasn't just the town's economists and CEOs and White House advisers who got their names into Time and Newsweek; so did its writers and actors, when their shows turned up on CBS, or opened at Radio City Music Hall. Sometimes, serendipitously, we were caught in their orbits; my sister dinged the door of Paul Newman's car in nearby Greenwich; the man who directed our summer production of Bye Bye, Birdie had invented Tweety-Bird. He had a huge marble Tweety-Bird inlaid in the foyer of his home. (Homes had foyers.) Not exactly an amulet of power, perhaps, but pretty impressive if you'd grown up watching Looney Tunes on CFRN.

To Moody, they are figures in a comic book, his Tweety-Birds. To me, they were a demonstration that wit and ideas could get you someplace. Of course, Moody is just doing his job as a novelist when he shows us his characters with their pants down (and all that follows), or tells us how the place felt to him. And I expect he did know more about what was really going on than I. He was a child of that universe, growing up in neighbouring Fairfield; I only lived there for two years, returning to Alberta when I was fifteen.

Still, Nick Carraway knows what Nick Carraway knows. My friends didn't seem in the least purposeless; they were going off (after a stint at some ivied institution) to become storefront lawyers and social workers and idealistic congressional aides. No doubt not all these best intentions worked out; no doubt many of them ended up inheriting Dad's business and money and could now slip between the pages of The Ice Storm as serenely as its characters slip between each other's bedsheets. But neither were they, or their town, unblessed. “You could have grace explained to you a hundred times, but unless you got some, it was just air,” muses the fourteen-year-old daughter of the book's hapless main character. It seems to me, for two years, in New Canaan, I did.

Jane Lampmann (review date 26 February 1998)

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SOURCE: “Gospel Musings by Younger Authors,” in Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1998, p. B3.

[In the following review, Lampmann offers a positive assessment of Joyful Noise.]

A thought-provoking anthology of essays, Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited is a conscious attempt to enter into today's public debate about the values we live by.

Concerned that public discussion on spiritual and moral values is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity, the two editors—raised in religious households—called on fellow artists to speak about their personal experience with the Bible. They sought fresh insights about familiar scriptures to serve as possible models for ethical behavior.

The contributors are from a generation of young adults that, the editors say, often shies away from saying what it believes about spiritual values. But novelists Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke persuaded their colleagues to share private musings and personal interpretations of New Testament texts. The result is a heartfelt, surprising, frank, sometimes sad, and often funny book whose literary quality is consistently high even as its spiritual messages vary greatly.

Not all of the contributors are Christians. A Jew (Jim Lewis in “Was”) discusses his admiration for the poetry and vision of John 1:1–18, even while disagreeing with its worldview. And a few speak of the community of secular humanists to which they belong.

But the pleasure of this work lies in the way most delve into specific texts to find a passage's relevance to their lives.

In “Jesus Was a Convict,” novelist and TV producer Kim Wozencraft discusses the power of Jesus’ crucifixion between two criminals and his conversations with them, as presented in Luke 23, and how this has colored her perspective on the death penalty and her work with people in prison.

In “A Love Supreme,” novelist Madison Smartt Bell tells of his life-long encounter with I Corinthians 13, and its message of a love that can unlock the door to the prison of self.

In “Within and Without,” painter and art critic Stephen Westfall ponders Jesus's teaching on the kingdom of heaven within (Luke 17:20–21), the power and authenticity of the contemplative experience, and the realization that “I cannot experience the kingdom of heaven within me and remain blind to its innateness within you.”

Some essays head off in unexpected directions—to the lessons of a communal voodoo experience in Haiti or observations on a Southern Christian sect whose members handle poisonous snakes.

Yet the value of the anthology rests on how it demonstrates that, if we are seeking, God speaks to us in ways we can understand and at the place where we are.

One of the freshest, most amusing essays is Jeffrey Eugenides's “Underdog: The Holy Spirit of Acts”—an appreciation of the Holy Spirit and its effects on humanity. After reviewing its astonishing activities throughout Acts and laughing at his failed attempt to speak in tongues, the writer says: “These things are important to keep in mind: that the apostles were constantly amazed at what the Holy Spirit did; that the Holy Spirit went where it wanted to, into the unclean people it wanted to; and that the nature of the Holy Spirit is progressive, inclusive, emancipating, and demanding in ways we cannot foresee.”

These various encounters with the New Testament highlight humility, inclusiveness, love, trust in the power of the Spirit, selflessness, and the demand to judge not. Whether this book broadens the debate on values, it offers fresh evidence of the power the gospel message holds for those seeking spiritual and moral anchors.

Paul Quinn (review date 27 February 1998)

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SOURCE: “Slanted Types,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Quinn offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

If the stuttering, alcoholic, Hex Raitliffe is the official and somewhat over-qualifiedly anti-hero of Purple America, Rick Moody's third, and best, novel, the book's unofficial Chorus is provided by, and in, italics. At one level, the book is, like Moody's acclaimed The Ice Storm (1994), an exercise in social comedy and observation—this time depicting an upscale Connecticut family's encounter with the bleak realities of deterioration of the body, the environment and the modern world. Hex, is endowed with a whole armoury of bathetic accessories designed to elicit our sympathy and amusement. He has a drink problem, he is feckless, he is sexually inept and consonantally challenged.

This last affliction points to a crucial and more ambitious aspect of the novel—the way it charts our attempts and failures to communicate, the way it focuses on the wonderful but imperilled thing that is language, be it language fractured (“What is it you're t-t-trying to t-tell me?”), language empurpled (as in the many passages where Moody aspires to a lush and lyrical, yet contemporary and flexible, register), or language italicized. Scarcely a page goes by without pepperings of italicized words, sentences or segments, and few writers have employed italics as copiously, or as supplely as we see here. In Martin Amis's novels, for example, italics are often used, but they tend to say one thing: this is a really profound observation I'm making here. Moody's italics are very various; they are often what interrupts the smooth progression of a thought, rather as italics break up the smooth progression of a page; they stand, in turn, for Hex's stammered thoughts, for the jargon words used by staff at his stepfather's nuclear power plant when faced with radioactive emissions leaking into local waters, and with the subsequent media fall-out, forcing them into “reconfiguring the CPL image position”; italics serve, also, to signify ripples of memory in the stream of consciousness of Hex's mother, Billie, as she succumbs to a debilitating neurological complaint.

Most powerful of all is the italicized message left by the aforementioned stepfather. Lou, as he deserts the aged Billie: “I can't watch you retreat from life this way. Your poverty has tired me out.” Even more chilling than the message however, is the medium, for it comes via a computer equipped with “Microsoft's popular Handispeak software.” His mother's inability to see clearly means her husband's goodbye note is recounted to her via an electronic voice like a dental assistant's, “calling out in the language of follow-up appointments and reminders to floss.” Throughout the novel, the alienating public languages of the modern age, of technology, of corporate-speak, of nuclear-industry euphemism, of radio-recounted murder statistics, are contrasted with and countered by private languages: “the language of motherhood,” for example. In one of numerous scenes where Moody skates dangerously close to sentimentality, Billie is tenderly bathed by Hex's childhood sweetheart, Jane Ingersoll, with whom she shares hard-won maternal confidences: “mothers make this world habitable, mothers arrive to ease your anguish, mothers remain afterward to sort out your mess.” In another section, Hex and Jane eloquently speak the language of kisses, each variety inevitably italicized: “snow-flurries,” “the asthmatic kiss,” “the popular lamprey,” and so on.

Italics, then, are merely the most recurrent formal embodiment in the novel of Moody's attempt to go beyond the story which is in itself powerful and engrossing—the story of Billie's desire to die a dignified death with Hex's help, and Hex's attempts belatedly to achieve a dignified life. They signal the irruption of the many languages that leak into the consciousness of the late-century American, some profound, some noxious, like the emissions pouring into the irradiated waters of Long Island Sound, for which Lou is partly culpable and guilt-ridden. Moody must be commended for writing a novel which is at once private and tender (not many books would make a middle-aged man's bathing of his aged, chronically ill mother a stylistic and emotional opening set piece) and public in its depiction of how the Babel of the outside world surrounds us. Purple America is also a deeply moral book, preoccupied with the need to care for something outside ourselves. Both Hex and Lou must make decisions about their responsibilities to Billie, but she is never a mere counter, she is as alive and autonomous, despite her faltering consciousness, as anyone in the book.

Moody writes somewhere in the half rhyme between Cheever (an acknowledged influence) and Coover (who taught Moody). His work has the social acuity of the former and some of the formal brio of the latter (Only some. There is nothing here as confidently experimental as Coover's recent John's Wife, 1996, and perhaps due to the mixed parentage of his influence, Moody is sometimes in danger of reading like Postmodernism Lite.) Despite a slightly over-dramatic Mexican stand-off of an ending, which suggests Moody may have mentally optioned Quentin Tarantino rather than Ang Lee for the film rights this time, Purple America further establishes the author as part of a gifted generation of American writers—writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and fellow Brown alumni, Jeffrey Eugenides and Donald Antrim, concerned with crises of masculinity and modernity.

Alexander Star (review date 19 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Following the Fall-Out,” in London Review of Books, March 19, 1998, pp. 22–23.

[In the following review, Star provides an overview of Moody's thematic preoccupations and artistic development from Garden State to Purple America.]

Like much of Rick Moody's previous work, Purple America charts the lives of the ‘slovenly, affluent’ young. It's not an especially good life. Moody's characters are distinctly unhappy, unformed, unable to proceed with their lives in anything like a reasonable way. Instead, they gradually succumb to a set of local problems. When the logic of crisis is put in motion, the outlook further darkens. In Moody's novels, to be born is a crime, and to grow up compounds the offence. The enclosed residences of American affluence are under a curse—nature and neuroses will contrive to bring them low.

Moody delivers this dark verdict in a casual, off-hand prose. His miniature family tragedies emerge through a screen of humorous banter and comically exhibited clichés; his language frequently reminds us of its intimacy with convenience stores, shag carpets, and the patter of commercial speech. Updating Cheever and Updike, he wants to make the literature of suburban distress available to a less rigid generation, one which grew up on the Brady Bunch and the Bee Gees.

At the same time, Moody brings political and technological preoccupations to bear on his sheltered characters. Attempting to marry private traumas and public problems, he laces his work with environmental disasters and electrical surges. The sinister hum of power plants, and the invisible presence of radioactivity, undergird his storylines at all times. The ‘guardians of the atomic age’ have apparently bungled the job, and now we are all at risk. Under these conditions, the novelist must follow the fall-out wherever it goes.

Moody's first novel, Garden State (1992), is a bluntly primitive investigation of the ‘nuclear blast of the nuclear family’. Written in a deadpan, matter-of-fact style, it's a kind of literary analogue to the indie rock of the mid-Eighties, to the music of bands like the Replacements who sang tepidly defiant sagas of generational self-pity: ‘We're getting no place / As fast as we can.’ Moody situates a gallery of burned-out kids in the toxic environment of northern New Jersey—the landscape the sociologist Donna Gaines has called a ‘teenage wasteland’. The ‘chromium haze’ of the region settles over everyone. A tone of nonchalant failure is sustained throughout: ‘He knew everyone who was a nobody.’ A success in this town is ‘the kind of girl who could do math and return phone calls’. And effort? ‘His solemn vow, his solemn effort, was to try not to drink while on his mother's tranquillisers.’

Before long, we grasp that the studied indifference of Moody's characters is indistinguishable from their hidden sorrow over family disarray. A teenage girl muses about a world with ‘all fathers gone', or observes that ‘there were fathers, but no dads.’ All the feeling in the book gathers around absent fathers who produce kids who have ‘faded away', who are ‘dead inside’: ‘There wasn't much left of him.’ None of this is unusual in the ethos of depressed teenage suburbia that Moody strives to evoke: your typical grunge band might strike rebel poses, and write aggressive hymns to the spirit of generational angst; but if you scratch the surface, their songs turn out to express a fervent longing for a strong family life. It's always incest or an absent father that turns a misunderstood kid into a murderer, or incites a sad girl to slit her wrists.

Quite often, Moody coaxes a casual, mock-heroic poetry out of his characters’ hopelessness. His brittle portraits of broken homes have a terse economy to them. But he doesn't look closely at those homes, and as a result risks reducing his unhappy teenagers to symptoms of largely unexamined crises. In Garden State, family breakdown is the background condition for the poignant display of teenage self-pity.

In The Ice Storm (1994), by contrast, Moody faces the breakdown of a family head on. The setting is rural Connecticut, the home of affluent brokers and businessmen. Distracted by the Watergate scandal and the oil crisis, the local husbands dutifully take the commuter train to Manhattan; when they return, they blow smoke rings of marijuana and praise the economic theories of Milton Friedman. ‘America rose and fell on the melodies of New Canaan's songs about the economy. Songs sung by a Jewish economist and mimicked by Wasps who would have thought twice before playing golf with the guy.’ The wives meanwhile are listless and bored. Strung out on quack therapies and self-help books, they have no higher purpose than to serve a ‘moist turkey’ for dinner and to reflect on mental illness:

Its onset would not be the result of a failed marriage or because of 20th-century spiritual impoverishment; it would be caused instead by these details, by a pen mark on the designer pantsuit she'd bought for the holidays, by the slight warp in her Paul Simon album, or by the acrid taste of old ice cubes. These small things led to a bottomless pit of loneliness beside which even Cambodia paled.

As for the children, they are sombrely aware that ‘family was a bluff, a series of futile power grabs.’

Much of The Ice Storm is appealingly compact and direct. Moody portrays his children with particular affection, giving their comic-book cosmologies and private languages in careful detail. A gentle, spaced-out teenager ‘had not scored well on standardised tests or on any other tests’. When two kids fumble towards sexual contact, their ‘hips locked together uneasily, like mismatched pieces of a jigsaw puzzle’. (Ang Lee's film adds meticulous visual detail to these scenes, setting the story against an alternating backdrop of glass houses and dark woods.)

Of course, Moody's distressed, privileged world is not exempt from outside forces. As the book proceeds, it develops a somewhat strained analogy between the ‘unfaithfulness’ of leaders like Nixon and the casual wife-swapping of the suburbs: ‘The only commodity that was traded was wives.’ When a freak storm blankets the county in ice, the novel rushes towards its double ending, juxtaposing a wife-swapping cocktail party with the accidental electrocution of one of the participating couples’ children. Marital infidelity and technological danger conspire to break up two families, throwing them into a ‘malevolent, post-electrical silence’. Though the electrocution and the couple-swap are carefully handled, Moody keeps a chilly distance from his adult characters. Rather than examine their feelings directly, he prefers to offer eloquent summaries: ‘Like so many of the older Protestant couples, they were charming, courteous and estranged.’ The novel doesn't quite plumb the depths of its disasters.

Written in elaborate, distended sentences, Purple America is Moody's most ambitious book. Like Philip Roth's American Pastoral, it concerns a homicidal stutterer in the suburbs. Roth's subject was a teenage girl who becomes a politically enraged terrorist. Moody's quarry belongs to another breed: the hero of Purple America is named Hex Raitliffe; he's a 32-year-old party promoter with little to show for himself except a fine wardrobe and a (well-justified) predilection for self-pity. When his disabled mother calls him back to her house in Connecticut to help prepare for her death, he falls into a series of miserable crises involving liquor, medicine and burning cars that point him towards a terrible nervous collapse.

Moody's long, flowing sentences submerge the reader into the current of Hex's thoughts and rapidly changing feelings—affection, dread, anger at his stepfather, who has just taken up and left—as he finds himself having to bathe his mother's decaying body, shortly after his arrival on her doorstep. Technology intrudes chillingly into the scene. With her voice nearly gone, his mother uses a computer to communicate, pointing and clicking at a vast menu of words. It's this machine that reads aloud the farewell note that her husband has left, and then reads aloud her own instruction to her son to ‘undertake to end my life.’ Mother and son sit together and listen to the computer sound out these dreadful messages, its synthesised voice droning on ‘as if reciting oven-cleaning instructions or do's and don'ts of water safety’.

Moody struggles to maintain this level of intensity. Once again, family crisis takes place within the penumbra of technological disaster. Hex's stepfather, Lou Sloane, is a nuclear engineer who is laid off from his job at the local power plant just as a headline-making crisis, a ‘code two unusual event', envelops the area. Meanwhile, Hex conjures with the legacy of his biological father, a physicist who participated in post-war nuclear tests before making a fortune in uranium mining and moving to Connecticut in a Gatsby-style effort to disguise his origins and blend in with the local élite. When Hex is ten, his father dies unexpectedly of an aneurysm. The possibility that Hex, too, might be a victim of radiation-poisoning lurks in the background as he hurtles towards his crackup.

Though it builds on experiments in his short fiction, Purple America is nonetheless a stylistic leap for Moody. Conspicuously nodding to DeLillo's coolly precise technical jargon, Pynchon's loose historical riffs and David Foster Wallace's involuted, self-undermining thought-processes, Moody weaves together a great number of voices into agile and extremely long sentences. He ventriloquises the clinical impersonality of a technician (‘urinary pressure increasing incrementally, as the imported beer … is converted by the purifying organs into basic dextrose and formaldehyde’), the hyped up exclamations of a TV salesman (‘A rottweiler! America's fearsome and trusted watchdog!’), the stoned chatter of a beatnik handyman and the expansive observations of a cultural critic:

Those six lines of interstate are the avenue of choice for those who sunder themselves from habits and routines and head out on the road, avoiding the car pool lanes, turning the radio up and singing (tunelessly)—those Americans, bending the rules a little as far as open container restrictions go, paying no heed to restrictive speed limits, passing on the right, these rugged individualists, who at the end of a long tussle have concluded that marriage is a confinement, these guys who are convinced there's a part of the good life hidden from them, a patch of contentment so far denied, the pursuit of happiness being written into the original national documents for godsakes.

Most frequently, however, Moody chooses to focus on the hapless plight of his schlemiel protagonist:

Raitliffe is particularly tired of watching any and all of his contemporaries pairing off as though it were prearranged, men or women, wherever, in nightclubs, in night school, in public places, on buses, subways, trains, at street corners, in lines for bathrooms, hitting it off in conversations that would take him a good twenty minutes. Hi there I couldn't help over-hearing your remarks on reforestation in Katmandu and it really struck a chord in me, pretexts time-tested and approved by 1001 Ways to Meet Single Women, all of those conversations of lonely hearts, prose of lovers skydiving into one another's arms, hastening from beds to the aisles of churches.

This sentence is fairly typical of Moody's methods, with its fluid, run-on syntax, its send-up of contemporary clichés, and its interpolation of italicised voices into a stream of consciousness. Moody's writing is always lilting and lyrical; the extended riffs move along swiftly, but they can also come off as glib or ingratiating. The satire is often too broad to be very funny (‘remarks on reforestation in Katmandu’). And the frequent use of italics to supply emphasis becomes dull with repetition, as if Moody is simply turning up the volume whenever he wants to make sure we savour a phrase's absurdity or emotional significance (‘Old Saybrook and Fenwich are condominium communities, Sunset Gables and Pleasant Point and Marshland Estates’; ‘As the week of home renovation stretched into two weeks, however, his resolve began to crumble’).

More important, Moody's relentless drive to document Hex's lowly stature becomes wearisome. The emotional combustion of a sorry loser could be a rich theme; but the novel is too busy mocking Hex, kicking him in the rear, vaudeville-style, for the full force of his agony to emerge. Nor are the other characters more fully drawn; his mother's jumbled reveries are movingly presented, but they don't add up to much beyond a series of dustbowl clichés—‘and thistle and bad ground and great storms of topsoil, or the hothouse of summer when she went about in just her dress and nothing underneath’. As for Lou Sloane, he seems a mere impersonation of masculinity, his voice an imitation of what someone else's dad is supposed to sound like.

Moody can write more effectively than this. When he's not jeering too hard, he gets Hex's wavering feelings across strongly. And when he's not gesturing towards an incipient nuclear meltdown, he can use the language of science to bring a scene gently and surprisingly into focus: in a restaurant, Hex watches his mother's ‘biological processes work their way out from under the auspices of intention, her bladder reluctantly yielding its responsibilities to gravity’. But typically, Moody goes on to press this moment into the service of his technopolitical-designs: as his mother evacuates her waste onto the restaurant floor, a newscaster appears on TV to warn of a ‘leakage of waste water’ from the local power plant.

Like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and many other young novelists, Moody yokes together a number of apparently disparate elements: an intimacy with the politics of popular culture, a fascination with bizarre, paranoid visions, a feel for family detail. He may be the most natural writer in this group, the most effortless stylist, but he doesn't quite match the others in the power of his imagination, or hasn't done so yet. His most successful work to date is a short story that departs from his usual preoccupation with unhappy families. In ‘The James Dean Garage Band,’ we are told that James Dean walked away from the car crash that supposedly killed him and showed up in a remote California desert town. Joining a threadbare local band, the incognito star helps to incite spectacular musical innovations and barroom brawls—all of them entirely unknown to his mourning fans. In the end, this story turns out to be the narrator's fantasy, the invention of a 57-year-old retail store manager who yearns to tell ‘all kinds of stories, stories based on real stories, stories of the most rigorous truth, stories of legendary couples, stories of their partings’. Once again, Moody takes us into a world of teenage fantasy and stunted development. Only this time, the unhappy dreamer, the deluded would-be hero, is an adult.

Thomas J. Brady (essay date 3 June 1998)

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SOURCE: “A Veiled Look into Voicing the Unspeakable,” in Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1998, p. Q02.

[In the following essay, Brady provides an overview of Moody's life, fiction, and literary career.]

Who was that masked man? It might just be Rick Moody.

Seems he's been wearing a handkerchief or black veil over his face occasionally as part of his research into a freewheeling nonfiction book about a long-ago relative nicknamed Handkerchief Moody.

Handkerchief—who died in 1820—donned the veil for the last 10 or 15 years of his life out of remorse for having accidentally killed his best childhood friend with a firearm.

Moody has worn the veil at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., much to the consternation of many of those around him.

The story of Handkerchief Moody is the latest work planned by the author of Garden State,The Ice Storm,The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven and Purple America, which has just been released in paperback. The Ice Storm was made into a critically acclaimed film last year, starring Kevin Kline and directed by director Ang Lee.

In Purple America, Moody writes about the meltdown of a nuclear family in Connecticut. Dexter “Hex” Raitliffe has been summoned home from New York to take care of his mother, Billie Raitliffe, severely incapacitated by advanced stages of a neurological disease after she has been abandoned by her husband, Louis Sloane, Hex's stepfather.

The novel, the second sentence of which is a sprawling run-on affair reminiscent of James Joyce, tells how the alcoholic Hex takes on his mother's care, bathing and dressing her and fending off her requests he relieve her of her misery at some point in the future. That last part, incidentally, grew out of Moody's own mother's interest in the Hemlock Society. “I don't think she's a card-carrying member,” he said in a recent interview. “She talks about it.”

Billie's vocal cords have been so weakened she can only communicate through a computerized vocal synthesizer. Meanwhile, Louis Sloane is taking the fall for an incident at the nuclear power plant where he has until recently worked. Despite its heavy subject matter, Purple America is often humorous and thoroughly engaging.

Moody says his mother was not the basis for Billie Raitliffe, that in fact his mother has never had a debilitating disease. The inspiration for Billie's disease, he said, came from one of his earliest novelist heroes, Stanley Elkin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis.

Concerning some of the difficult topics in his books, including the Oedipal tension in Purple America and the drug addiction and sexual compulsion in The Ring of Brightest Angels, Moody says: “I'm naturally drawn to stuff you're not supposed to talk about. … I think literature is best when it's voicing what we would prefer not to talk about. … Literature is about interior states and emotional states, about what people think that they don't always say to their neighbors. I'm drawn magnetically with my tangled long sentences to those spots people don't want to talk about.”

Moody, 36, was born in Manhattan and reared primarily in the privileged suburbs of Connecticut, including New Canaan, the setting for The Ice Storm.

He earned a bachelor's in English at Brown University, where he studied with novelist John Hawkes, who died earlier this month. One of his fond recollections of Hawkes is of the author of “Blood Oranges” bringing wine to all his classes and of class members firing champagne corks into the street from the porch of the house where they had gathered for their last session.

Moody later received a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia and spent five years in the publishing industry and then some more time “making it small” before having his first novel, Garden State, published in 1992.

“I always wrote as a kid,” he says, observing he even started and abandoned two novels when he was 12. “As a teenager I was always scribbling, writing love poems to girls. … I was always driven and attracted to narrative as an art.”

In addition to writing, Moody, who is single and lives in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., teaches at Bennington College in Vermont and at the New School for Social Research in New York. Last fall, he co-edited with Darcey Steinke a collection of contemporary writings about the New Testament called Joyful Noise.

He says that although a routine used to be important to him, he now just lets “inspiration happen.”

Moody says that he especially loves writing on the road, because “the phone doesn't ring very much.” He works on a laptop, usually while listening to experimental music—“music without lyrics”—by such composers as Philip Glass and John Cage. “Indian classical music is really very good,” he adds.

In addition to working on “the Black Veil project,” Moody is writing another novel. And as for that handkerchief, he says, “I don't claim to be through wearing it yet.”

Sally E. Parry (review date Summer 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Joyful Noise, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1998, p. 258.

[In the following review, Parry offers a positive assessment of Joyful Noise.]

Joyful Noise is an eclectic collection of essays on religion in general and the New Testament in particular by mostly young, contemporary writers including Madison Smartt Bell, Benjamin Cheever, Barry Hannah, bell hooks, and Joanna Scott. It is a pleasure to see an engagement with spirituality in a less than dogmatic manner, by writers who represent a variety of interpretations and come from backgrounds ranging from white, heterosexual, and Christian to African-American, Hispanic, gay, Jewish, and Buddhist. The editors compare the collection to jazz, hence the name Joyful Noise, various riffs on Jesus and the apostles.

Topics in this volume range from personal interpretations of Jesus to how the Gospels can affect the way we live in modern society. Among the most successful are the essays which blend personal narrative with a carefully thought-out reaction to a specific part of the New Testament. Bell hooks's “Love's Alchemy,” for example, starts with her experience of attending a class on the Bible as Literature and ends with a beautiful meditation on 1 John, on how perfect love can cast out fear and what the implications of that notion mean.

There is a fascination with the human side of Jesus, as a teenager, as a convict, as a friend to the imperfect apostle Peter, and with his physicality, including his feet. The least successful of these essays are those that seem to be primarily childhood reminiscences of God, Jesus, and the Bible and stay at the anecdotal level rather than transcending these remembrances. Joyful Noise will be of interest to those who want to think seriously about their own spirituality and relate it to their concerns about modern society.

Rick Moody with Fran Dilustro Gordon (interview date March–April 1999)

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SOURCE: “Moody on Dark Humor, Bright Angels, and Quantum Leaps,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 27, No. 2, March–April, 1999, pp. 37, 39, 41.

[In the following interview, Moody discusses the themes and writing of Purple America, his views on spirituality and morality, and the development of his prose style and artistic concerns.]

[Gordon:] Your work seems to center on how spirit might illuminate the soulless structure of social process. Are you aware of this when you write? And how important a role does social conscience play in your work?

[Moody:] Well, I certainly thought of Purple America as being a book that tried to elaborate valid, genuine, spiritual structures that were outside of institutional religious edifices, and to do so without being secular at the same time. In other words, to believe—to the extent that that really means something—but to resist received articulations about belief. And as far as the popular-culture stuff goes, I feel like that's perfectly valid terrain for me, and that the high/low distinction is a continuum, or it should be seen as a continuum, and that literature—with the full force of this word; literature that's ambitious to be literature—can certainly have plenty to do with the popular at the same time.

Family is an ideal microcosm for society, as the action of one member has reference and influence on the others. Do you think you'll keep using the nuclear family?

Well, family turns out to be—at least in America—the structure on which to project political interests and concerns. In other words, the best way to talk about America as a whole is to talk about the American family. So, I'm not necessarily interested in family on a limited scale, I'm interested in how every American political issue gets played out in that theater.

You called Purple America a dark novel, but even with its catastrophic conclusion it seemed to me more hopeful than earlier work. Maybe I'm perverse, but it seems you were writing through annihilation toward light. There's an almost Shivaistic quality to it.

I think that when I said it was dark I was probably trying to reassure people whose tastes are less ominous and apocalyptic than mine are. I think it's more hopeful probably than The Ice Storm is, for example, more hopeful than the novella, The Ring of Brightest Angels … but it deals with strenuous material, and it begins at a spot of particular complication and gets far more complicated, so to that extent it's dark, and it doesn't stop dealing with euthanasia and pollution and issues of mortality until page three-hundred-and-whatever. I think Purple America ends up demonstrating the possibilities of language and art to console, and love to console, but most people find reading about one's ill mother and whether or not to perform euthanasia upon her as being difficult and dark. I actually find the book very funny, you know.

Well, Francine Prose seems to appreciate your humor, particularly the “bad sex” sections. “Nobody ever writes about bad sex!” she said, enthusiastically, when I mentioned I was going to interview you.

I was going to be interviewed on the radio, on Fresh Air, by Terry Gross—she's tough, you know—and she said, “What was it like writing material that's this dark? Did you feel dark yourself while you were writing it?” And I said, “Well, Terry, I gotta say I actually find it funny.” And there was a pause—and she said, “You find a man giving his incurably ill mother who's quadriplegic a bath funny?” And so there I was, on the spot.

You probably finished Purple America at one of the most difficult times in your life. Do you think this came into play?

I don't think Purple America would have been probably as serious a book as it is if my sister hadn't died. It cast a long shadow.

Do you think writing can recover what's lost in life?

No, but I think writing about what's lost makes for really good work.

Are you a religious person?

I don't know. That's a tough, tricky question. I'm not institutionally spiritual, and I'm this way because of my differences with the religious structures that are available to us in America. I resist these institutions and I believe there are spiritual opportunities and structures that are opposed to their kind of rigidity.

Do you come from a religious background? I notice that the dedication on Joyful Noise is, in part, to John Moody.

He's my cousin. The answer is no. We didn't go to church every Sunday.

So, do you believe in the existence of evil?

That's a question that I've really wrestled with. My cousin, who in many ways is the person who helps me figure this stuff out, says that it's really playing fast and loose to presume that there isn't a force like that. And I guess over the years that I've been thinking about it, which is probably four or five years, I've come to see that I can't completely discount that idea, that maybe there is a force—but everything in me recoils from this and sees evil as being just the flawed nature of creation. I kind of like the take on evil that this world is flawed from the outset, and that we the people in it are flawed and that itself is part of evil.

Sometimes it seems like you're in search of new morals, which is kind of a refreshing change from just smashing the old and leaving it at that. Yet, as an amoral being, I still find some danger in this. Do you think of yourself as a moral writer?

I find this question fascinating, because of just what you say. I'm a highly educated Northeastern liberal, right? A liberal. In fact, I am a former would-be communist—I was a Trotskyite as an undergraduate—and I nonetheless feel that my peers who call themselves amoral, and I would include you in this list for the purpose of argument, are not amoral. Nevertheless, the climate in New York is such that one will court tremendous friction and dissent by using the word moral under any circumstances. For instance, if I say X, Y, or Z thing is immoral, I become assigned fundamentalist by my liberal peers in the media. And I think that that's tremendously shortsighted. As I said in the introduction to Joyful Noise, we all really believe in some stuff, and that constitutes a moral vision. But when you abdicate the responsibility of articulating your moral vision, you yield effective morality to whoever is willing to speak up. And that's really dangerous. So I think the liberal left does stand for things, that that is a liberal morality, and that it's worth talking about what that morality is. I've already gotten in trouble with this stuff and I've done a couple of interviews recently on The Ice Storm in which I said to a reporter, “Well, you know I think the morals of the seventies were a little fuzzy.” And they then presume that I'm a conservative and that means that I'm judging our great social experiment and all this stuff, you know. I just mean that actions from any period have consequences and it's fair for us to talk about what those consequences were.

Do you feel a constant struggle between the Nietzschean separation impulse and the desire to make society better?

Definitely. I can't really produce my art during a phase in which I'm totally engaged in society. But at the same time, I value society. So there is a real push and pull between retreat, in a spiritual sense, and earthly distractions. But that goes back to the monastic origins of religion in general; it goes back to how the whole reading and writing thing was first and foremost to edify the spirit.

How do you account for your quantum leap in style and command of prose that developed after The Ice Storm?

Well, I think it actually happened in the midst of The Ice Storm rather than after it. In fact, I think it happened sort of all at once in the beginning of the third section when Mikey starts meandering toward his execution. I suddenly realized … you know, I'd done a lot of thinking about plot, and I'd been a bad plotter as a student writer. I knew nothing about it. I didn't even understand what people were talking about when they talked about plot, and when I was learning how to use the novel as a form, I thought that I would really have to figure this plot business out and load my books with elaborate and premeditated stories in order to get people interested. And what I found suddenly in the third section of The Ice Storm was that a character in the midst of some dramatic situation, any dramatic situation, rendered in language that's new and spontaneous is plenty to drive a narrative. And then I realized that I didn't need big premeditated narratives to make novels grow, and so I started to let go of ideas about structure that were rigid and inflexible and instead took language and psychology to the fore.

Your voice, which has been referred to as a “loud and showy rev of engines,” is to me one of authority, a quality which is sadly lacking in today's young writers.

What's not stressed for people in our writing programs now is that the voice ends up being what's unique about a writer. Nabokov said something about this: What have I but my style?

You've said, “I'm not interested in writing a realistic story.” What are you interested in? And what, to you, constitutes reality?

What I meant when I said that, I suppose, would be American naturalistic fiction, and the whole mantle that goes with that. Dreiser, Jack London, Steinbeck, Jane Smiley, Rick Bass. I think Purple America is a very realistic book on a certain level, as is Ring of Brightest Angels. … But they're both ambitious stylistically and formally, and these things, in conventional thinking about fiction, are held to be at the opposite pole from realism. So that's the sense in which I mean I don't want to write realistic stories. I want to write stories that are full of style and formal ingenuity, if I can.

Do you think there are any conspicuous or secret flaws in your work? I think our weaknesses comprise our greatest strengths.

Well, I think everyone knows mine. I mean, I'm not a story architect probably. But I think what I've ended up doing has made that weakness a skill—you know, that's what Purple America did—so I'm happy with how it's turned out.

John Frederick Moore (essay date March–April 1999)

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SOURCE: “Moody Indigo,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 27, No. 2, March–April, 1999, pp. 34–43.

[In the following essay, Moore provides an overview of Moody's life and literary career, his artistic and thematic preoccupations, and the development of his fictional concerns and prose style.]

You'd never know from looking at Rick Moody that he's been dubbed the heir to the literary tradition of John Cheever. With his shag of bleach-blond hair, worn-out blue jeans, and high-top sneakers, he seems more like someone you'd find working at a bookstore than someone who's written books that grace bookstore shelves. You wouldn't think he's the type of guy who packs them in at readings and teaches at prestigious writing workshops around the country. Nor does he fit the part of the workhorse who gets up every morning at six to pound out some of the most striking and inventive prose in contemporary literature. But, though it's hard to picture him sipping sherry at a PEN Center benefit, Rick Moody—who's all about defying categorization—is very much a man of letters.

His most recent novel, Purple America, has garnered universally rave reviews; a movie version of The Ice Storm was released to critical acclaim in the fall of 1997; and he was listed as one of (of all magazines) Entertainment Weekly’s top 100 creative people in entertainment in 1997. Add it all up and Moody became, for a time, the poster boy for young American novelists.

“I don't know that I think I am the critics’ darling,” the soft-spoken 37-year-old author says. “But I honestly have gotten better reviews for [Purple America] than any of the others, so it feels gratifying from that standpoint.”

As well it should. Moody's work as a whole is a continuum on which he is constantly refining his style. With each successive book, Moody has moved from an almost Raymond Carver—like realism to a more impressionistic mode reflected by his edgy, often complex experimentation.

His first novel, Garden State, is a fairly straightforward tale of disaffected youths living in Haledon, New Jersey. Next came The Ice Storm, told completely from the point of view of one of the major characters, although this is not revealed until the final page. His short story collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, displays several stunning, innovative uses of the form.

But Moody really hit his stride with Purple America, a bruising narrative alternately told from the points of view of Hex Raitliffe, the drunken, stuttering, Reagan-loving ne'er-do-well; his mother, Billie, who is suffering from a neuromuscular disorder; and Lou Sloane, Hex's stepfather. The novel is rich with lyrical run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness, and words that will send the reader dashing to the dictionary. The first chapter of Purple America runs a little more than four pages; the second sentence occupies almost all of this space, with clauses linked by the word whosoever. In the hands of a less gifted writer, the result would be taxing and amount to nothing more than literary hijinks. But with Moody, it works because the language brings you inside the minds of his characters, who have been beaten in all sorts of ways, and who mentally try to dodge this pummeling.

“What's apparent to me is that I just got better,” Moody says. “Garden State, for me, is a young man's book, and I was just trying to figure out if I could write a novel. When I got to The Ice Storm, I made a decision to work with locations that I knew better and the kind of people whom I know better, just so I could concentrate on style more.”

As Moody has honed his craft, his work has steadily been taking on a more textured quality, dealing increasingly with mental rather than physical space. In Garden State, the bleak landscape of a run-down New Jersey town parallels the bleak outlook of the characters. Purple America, in contrast, is almost exclusively concerned with the internal emotions and motives of its players.

“What attracted me to fiction from the outset was its ability to deal with interior states,” Moody says. “Poetry does it also, and thus this is what literature does that cinema and theater can't do. I love Woolf, I love Beckett, I like all the writers who deal with that kind of psychological material. So as I've gotten more confident and self-assured about dealing with the form, I found I was getting better at this. Purple America is a refinement of these ideas about voice and style with respect to psychology.”

Salon, the online cultural and literary magazine, described Moody's style in Purple America as “something like Cheever crossed with Pynchon, a mature work that throws down a literary gauntlet to all serious young writers.” Yes, it's one of those quotes that make for great book-jacket fodder, but is there any validity to all this Cheever stuff?

“I think it started in a promotional gambit during The Ice Storm because I wrote this book about the suburbs, and he wrote about the suburbs, so I must be like him,” he says. “In that sense the comparison is topographical, and I find topography particularly shallow as a way of grouping writers together. But somehow, the comparison has stuck in ways that I find surprising, since the book between The Ice Storm and Purple America [The Ring of Brightest Angels] is not suburban, it's very urban. I have to presume it helps people figure out what I do in some way and, hence, must have some validity to it.

“Having thought about all this,” he continues, “I finally decided recently that I would write about what I liked about Cheever in an effort to find out where the influence really lies, if there is some. And I concluded that the later Cheever stories, from ‘The Swimmer’ on, in the collected stories—that's work I really love. It's unusual, it's not the kind of realistic, formulaic suburban stuff that we associate with some of his early work. Those late stories are really good and I'm honored to be compared to the writer of those stories.” (Moody's homage to Cheever appeared in the special “Tributes” issue of the literary journal Conjunctions, published in fall 1997.)

“The last thing I would say about it is that I do think it's an ethnic slur, that after a certain point it's like comparing all Jewish writers with Malamud or comparing all black writers with Ellison.”

It's hard comparing Moody with any of his contemporaries. The last two novels and the story collection don't fit neatly into categories such as postmodern, realist, metafiction, or transgressive, though Moody appropriates elements of all four. His is maximalist writing in a minimalist setting (The Ice Storm takes place over a weekend; Purple America is set within a 24-hour period). Moody's characters indulge in alcohol, drugs, and kinky sex, and the men are often compulsive masturbators. Many of the people who populate his books are emotionally shut off. The novelist Madison Smartt Bell, in an otherwise positive review of The Ring of Brightest Angels for Spin magazine, said that “no human depth is found in the characters, who are like dead butterflies pinned to a board.”

Though the characters in Ring of Brightest Angels are hardly admirable, Bell's criticism is more well turned than true. It's nearly impossible not to feel the desperation of the unnamed man who is sure his wife is cheating on him in “The Preliminary Notes,” or the poignancy of the 57-year-old narrator wistfully reflecting on his days as a drummer in the story “The James Dean Garage Band.”

Throughout his work, Moody's characters are capable of surprising compassion and sympathy. In Purple America, for example, Hex unexpectedly runs into Jane Ingersoll (with whom he was obsessed in high school) while out having dinner with his mother. Jane at first comes across as cold and brittle, not the type of person you'd want looking after your pets while you were out of town. But it is she who ends up taking care of Billie after Hex gets entangled in a mess with his stepfather during a drunken stupor.

In The Ice Storm, the story of the Hoods and the Williamses, neighbors in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973, it's the adults who are emotionally stunted and the teenagers who are capable of feeling tenderness, pain, and guilt. Sure, while the parents are out cheating on each other, the adolescents are experimenting with sex and drugs. Still, they're the only ones who believe their actions will have consequences and that they will be responsible for them.

Take this scene involving Paul Hood, the 16-year-old son of Benjamin and Elena. After a night out in New York with him, Libbets Casey, Paul's classmate and the object of his affections, passes out on her bed. Paul, encouraged by the sight of her bare backside, masturbates guiltily while Libbets is sleeping:

He wasn't a man at all. He was a boy. A privileged kid. His parents could get him out of what he had done. He would go to Silver Meadow. His dad had money. His dad could pay for psychiatric treatment. His dad would turn up during visiting hours with fresh socks. His dad would ferry him home to Silver Meadow after he got thrown out of St. Pete's. His dad would ferry him into that subspace of forgotten perverts.

While Paul Hood broods over the possible ramifications of his actions, his mother conducts an adulterous tryst with Jim Williams in the passenger seat of his car. Moody's narration of that event suggests an utter lack of depth among the adults: “It was urgent and painless and soon it was over. Jim moaned plaintively. In less time than it takes to defrost a windshield.”

“When I started The Ice Storm—I was twenty-nine—I was still feeling very close to my own childhood,” Moody says. “Now I feel a little more sympathy for the difficulties of adults and parents. I don't think the kids are more human than the adults, but they had my initial sympathy because I was thinking a lot about the past then.”

Moody's suburban past is a big issue when it comes to his fiction. Born in New York City, Moody moved with his family to New Canaan, Connecticut, when he was a child. Growing up in affluent surroundings and attending St. Paul's School in New Hampshire doesn't seem like great fodder for the kind of work he produces, but it's obvious that Moody looked at things a little differently from the way other kids did.

“In a lot of ways, the suburbs can be really quiet and really stultifying and not terribly interesting,” he says. “But it really depends on what you're willing to talk about. I lived there from when I can remember until I went away to school at thirteen, and my family's experience was not of the picket-fence and everything-ran-smoothly kind of suburban ideal.

“I got to see emotionally wrenching types of things taking place close to home—around my family, among neighbors, and so forth,” Moody says. “I knew, for example, a lot of latchkey kids. I knew people who had lost parents—there was all kinds of stuff going on. I think I'm the kind of writer who's drawn to that material. I didn't want to write about playing softball. I was a really bad softball player.”

He may not write about suburban picnics and bridge clubs, but Moody can cut to the heart of the way people live in a certain time and place as well as any novelist. In The Ice Storm he describes a wife-swapping, or “key,” party: “In New Canaan, word had come of the key parties long before the first had been thrown. Local marriages awaited key parties the way a smart boy, already having pored over the dictionary definition of masturbation, awaits the day when he will understand it.”

Moody's parents divorced when he was young, and he has written that for a time during his adolescence, he didn't feel like he had a dad. Although he and his father now have a good relationship, the theme of the absent father appears in much of his work.

“It's become sort of symbolically freighted since then,” Moody says. “I think that fatherlessness for us of the seventies is a great theme.” Moody believes he and his contemporaries came of age in an era when families still ordered themselves as a patriarchal system, despite the fact that that social model was breaking down and the dissemination of law or ethics came haphazardly, if at all. “Fatherlessness on the larger scale,” Moody says, “means making your way in life without those kinds of orienting points.”

It is perhaps in response to this absence that Moody's spirituality—another aspect of the author's category-defying nature—has become an integral part of his life. With novelist Darcey Steinke, Moody recently co-edited a collection of essays on the New Testament called Joyful Noise, and in October of 1997 Moody published an essay in Esquire titled “Why I Pray,” which explains the history behind his faith.

“I never believed in God and, as a result, never prayed to glorify his or her or its name,” he wrote. “Instead, I prayed because I was desperate, and thereafter I believed in whoever it was I prayed to—mainly because prayer did me some good.

Now, Moody says, faith is “part of every word I write.” The opening chapter of Purple America certainly takes on a biblical tone (“… whosoever in this instant of sorrow and reverence, knows the answers to why roses bloom, why wineglasses sing, why human lips, when kissed, are so soft, and why parents suffer, he shall never die”).

It's rare for a novelist of Moody's generation to wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve, a fact that's not lost on Moody himself. “I think my generation, and the one coming up behind me, tends to dismiss faith, to think it something shallow or pointless or contemptible, but it's a contempt prior to investigation, and that's always a dangerous business,” he says.

Candor is a hallmark of Moody's personality. In fact, the only things he doesn't willingly discuss anymore is the drug and alcohol abuse of his late teens and early twenties. As to his writerly influences and personal background, you could say Moody is, quite literally, an open book. He traces this openness back to his college years. “When I was in college at Brown in the late seventies, I studied in the semiotics department, which later got changed to ‘media studies,’” he explains. “But one of the hallmarks of semiotics I was studying was the notion of intertextuality, that writers didn't spring fully formed out of wherever it is they came from. According to these ideas, concealing influence and concealing textual references was a vain project. From this I got the notion that I'm not going to repress these things, because it's pointless. I thought, Okay, why not just come out with it and let people think what they may.” In the appendix to The Ring of Brightest Angels, Moody addresses subjects like fatherlessness and substance abuse, along with providing an annotated list of many of the books and records on his shelves that have had an influence on him.

Another, decidedly less intellectual discovery influenced his policy of full disclosure: “In 1993 I first got a PowerBook and I learned that Microsoft Word had all these incredible features that I'd never used before, these footnoting features.”

Moody is glued to his PowerBook from 6 a.m. until noon every day. He does away with all distractions—e-mail, clerical duties, phone calls—by 9, then writes nonstop until noon (he will not answer the phone during this time). In the afternoon, he edits his work and takes care of whatever other responsibilities are left over. He still heeds the advice of the late John Hawkes—one of Moody's creative writing teachers at Brown—to write a thousand words a day. (Moody holds degrees in creative writing from Brown and Columbia.) Yet he is careful not to become a slave to the machine.

“When I was typing on the Selectric, I was forced to retype a draft even if I'd only made eight or ten changes in it,” he explains. “It was a really important project because I had to inhabit the sentence again and deal with its generation and decide if it was really right or if there was an alternative that was better in some way. So often when I type text into the computer, I'll print it out, obliterate the draft from the hard drive, and then reenter the whole thing. Eventually, I get to a spot where I just delete in the normal Microsoft Word way, but that's to say that the kind of haste that the computer affords does distract from the laborious intellection that really makes good fiction.”

Moody, of course, has his opinions on what makes good fiction. Not surprisingly, given his predilection for writing cutting-edge prose, Moody prefers work that pushes the envelope. “One thing that makes me bored—and you find this in short fiction, especially—is using the form, inheriting the form, swallowing it whole hog, and not tinkering with it at all,” he says. “There's a lot of American short fiction that has not advanced a centimeter since Hemingway's short stories.”

That's not the case with his own short fiction. Among the stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven are “The Preliminary Notes,” which details, in diary form, a husband listening in on his wife's phone calls; “Treatment,” a single sentence in the form of a movie treatment that meanders through 11 pages; “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner,” which considers the title character's fascination with similarities between his life and the Book of Revelation; and the title novella, a triptych of stories that thematically unites three downtown New Yorkers in a web of drugs and sex clubs (“junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven”).

Moody also loves big words (poltroonery,prolegomenon,cacuminal), is prone to using variant spellings (prise instead of prize), and his work, particularly Purple America, is drunk with words and phrases set in italics for emphasis (“His rental car, which seems to him to be leaking fuel in some way, is parked in the drive”).

Moody lists his three favorite writers as Samuel Beckett, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, and Stanley Elkin. He says they “are all people who have thought really insightfully about sentence rhythms. They make impeccable paragraphs. Their work sings. Bernhard was a composer also, so there's really a musical aspect to what he does. But I think that it's true of Beckett and Elkin, too, that they bring a sort of melody to what they do, and that's something that I've really learned from them.”

He's also learned how to deal with the demands that come with being a fairly well-known novelist. The movie version of The Ice Storm has extended Moody's name recognition, though he's hesitant to say he's won a significant number of new readers. He has, however, received offers to option more of his work for the movies (at this point, nothing has developed concretely).

“Since The Ice Storm [the book] came out, I feel more comfortable writing out of New York City and getting out of town to colonies or out in the country,” Moody says. “When I'm here there are pressures.”

Perhaps that's why Moody recently moved from Brooklyn to what he describes as a “remote, rural location” on Long Island, where he's currently working on what he refers to as a “faux-genealogical nonfiction book” called The Black Veil; Moody says he's finished about a third of it. A publication date hasn't been set.

“It's structured mainly as short responses to various issues suggested by Hawthorne's ‘The Minister's Black Veil,’ which has a vague relationship to my family,” Moody says.

A recent piece in the online magazine Word suggests themes from The Black Veil. In the piece, titled “Phobia and Composition,” Moody and his mother, Margaret F. M. Davis, in contrasting positions, reflect on childhood issues—Moody's extreme timidity; the fact that he and his family moved several times after his parents’ divorce—that contributed to his early development as a writer.

When he's done with The Black Veil, Moody says, he's planning a novel that's “more international, and New York might figure in it to some degree.”

“I'm trying to make the scope wider still,” Moody says.

And why not? That's what he's been doing all along.

Robert MacFarlane (review date 27 October 2000)

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SOURCE: “In a State of Irony,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 27, 2000, p. 23.

[In the following review, MacFarlane finds Demonology to be “an uneven collection,” despite the presence of several strong stories in the book.]

At one point in Todd Solondz's 1998 film Happiness, a female novelist is talking to her sister on the telephone, while her bronzed and unclad lover lifts weights. “You know, people put New Jersey down,” she tells her sister. “None of my friends can actually believe I live here, but they just don't get it—I'm living in a state of irony.” New Jersey, dubbed the Garden State in a fit of bucolic irony by its tourist board, provided the location and the title for Rick Moody's depressing first novel, Garden State (1993). His second, The Ice Storm (1994), presented the decay of the suburban ideal in 1970s New England; Ang Lee turned it into a bleakly elegant film. Purple America (1997), his third, described twenty-four terrible hours in the life of a Connecticut family—mother an invalid, son an alcoholic, stepfather fled—and was compared with James Joyce's Ulysses for its timescale, its vibrant, runaway language and its versatile use of the interior monologue. Moody, in other words, has steadily turned the states of the Eastern seaboard into his stamping ground, and suburban dysfunctionality into his motif. American critics have hailed him as the new chronicler of middle-class America, heir to John Cheever.

Demonology, Moody's most recent book, is a collection of thirteen formally experimental short stories of which the uniting theme is fragmentation, and the milieu the cities and suburbs of the East Coast. It is an uneven collection. “Pan's Fair Throng,” which looks as though it might be an allegory about Marx, is written in a hammed-up fairy-tale rhetoric, there is an over-solemn two-page sentence about an armoire, and “Boys,” though formally witty, is too bloodless to be interesting. These duds, however, are offset by several brilliant pieces.

“Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13,” for example, is a story printed to resemble a second-hand book catalogue. The author is a camp caffeine addict and bibliophile who glosses and prices his books according to their idiosyncratic roles in his past:

Carrington, Leonora. Chilblains. Paris: Editions Aveugle, 1921. Little known roman à clef, by the great surrealist. A library copy, actually stolen from the Widener, at Harvard, by yours truly. The story goes thus. I was desperately in love with an art history student, Anna Feldman, she of the blond bob, she of the palindromic name, she of the ballerina's frame. … I offer it at bargain price. $75.

One is put immediately in mind of Kinbote's digressive footnotes in Pale Fire. Wry and witty, Moody's story eventually makes its serious point: “it is things that make us happy … you and I know that collection is merely autobiography.” (Incidentally, this story is itself available in a limited edition for $20 from Danger! Books of Santa Monica; one entrepreneur is already offering his second-hand copy online at the “bargain price” of $250.)

This same idea—that lives are defined by externals and accretions, rather than intrinsically lived—is developed in “Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set,” another formally interesting story that hovers between obituary, elegy and satire. It appears on the page as the sleeve notes, written by one “Rick Moody,” to a ten-volume anthology of pop songs. The notes announce the project to be “a profound effort to bring to the public one of the representative lives of the last century: Wilkie Fahnstock, a confused, contemporary young person … a person of meager accomplishment. … But a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!” Alongside the notes are printed the titles of the 200-odd songs that make up the anthology, and with which the fictional Fahnstock calibrated his life; again, collection is presented by Moody as a form of autobiography, a way of narrating the self.

Two of the least likeable characters in Demonology use the hyper-structured language of cultural theory to make sense of their lives. One is a psychologist who speaks to her adolescent son as though to a seminar, all “contested spaces,” “individuations” and “social networks.” The other appears in “The Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal,” a consciously Joycean exercise in écriture féminine. The story consists of a single sixteen-page sentence spoken by a doctoral student, and describing her relationship with a male academic who refuses marriage because it is “a social construction of commitment … all about bourgeois power and patrimony.” When he suggests that femininity is itself a construct that she exploits, she takes surprising steps to prove otherwise. References to Lacan, Derrida and other godheads of theory abound, and this complexly entertaining story will doubtless be picked over by literary-theory classes, though Moody's moral—that the ultra-connectedness of theory is unhelpful when dealing with real life—will probably be missed.

A significant challenge of survival in late twentieth-century America, Moody suggests in Demonology, is establishing and maintaining a sense of self. The best of these stories push creatively at the short-story form, and offer insights, though not solutions, into how we try to give shape and continuity to our lives.

Jean Charbonneau (review date 4 February 2001)

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SOURCE: “Moody Rips the Suburbs Again,” in Toronto Star, February 4, 2001, p. BK-03.

[In the following review, Charbonneau offers a positive assessment of Demonology.]

The narrator of one of the stories in American Rick Moody's Demonology argues that soft rock music is “like a perfumed glob of used toilet tissue or a sample of imitation American cheese food product or meatless chili.” The same could be said for too many books of fiction—all light prose and predictable story lines. Moody's fiction is anything but soft or light.

Moody's latest collection—he's written a previous collection and three novels, including The Ice Storm and Purple America—is no easy-to-swallow literature you can read semi-absentmindedly in the subway. He's a gutsy writer who likes to experiment with form and structure, and the result is often impressive.

“The Ineluctable Morality of the Vaginal,” for instance, is told in a single 17-page sentence, ending with a meticulously described gynecological exam, a procedure the main character feels her lover needs to perform in order to understand her intrinsically.

The book opens with “The Mansion on the Hill,” a miniature novel so rich an entire review could be devoted to it. The narrator is a young man who has been in an existential funk since his sister died in a car crash. As the action takes wild twists and turns, the young man talks to his sister, confiding in her and seeking answers to questions too difficult to ask himself directly. The story brims with energy, yet to poignant effect.

Most of the book's characters are smart, educated and emotionally weary. Questions about who they are and the meaning of life keep popping in their heads, but answers rarely come. They are often nostalgic, given to Proustian musings about the past. They read Marguerite Duras, listen to Leonard Cohen, talk about Lacan's psychoanalytical theories. They are more disheartened than bitter, less sad than lost. They carry like a cross the consequences of bad decisions made earlier in life.

What prevents the stories from suffocating under the weight of all this angst is Moody's exuberant imagination and dark humour.

Perhaps the best, most moving story is “Boys,” an overview of two brothers’ lives from childhood to early adulthood. We see them concocting stupid pranks, worrying about school, struggling with acne, fantasizing about girls, experimenting with drugs. The opening sentence reads: “Boys enter the house, boys enter the house.” This phrase is used over and over again, becoming more mantra than leitmotif, the fuel that projects the story forward. The technique is reminiscent of Tim O'Brien's famous story “The Things They Carried.” And while the suburb of Edison, N.Y. is a less explosive setting than O'Brien's wartime Vietnam, “Boys” features the tragedies of every day—a sibling dying of cancer, a father struck down by heart attack. Large chunks of time are compressed in a mere seven pages, never leaving the reader with the impression it's just some biographical abstract. “Boys” is a tour de force.

Moody is a language pirouettist with a penchant for foreign phrases and fancy words (tintinnabulated, hermeneutical, rhizomatic). But his tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it fun, not annoying, the way it would be from some look-at-me novice writer. Even when he's jarring or cerebral or a bit too clever for his own good, he finds the way to be emotionally engaging—no small feat. This makes for a challenging reading experience that is ultimately rewarding on many levels.

Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 21 February 2001)

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SOURCE: “A Moody Kind of Suburbia,” in Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2001, p. E1.

[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses Moody's literary career and relays the author's comments on his life and work.]

To be fair, it is not highly professional to tell a tired writer on a book tour that you think he has a nice face. Some people might think you are, how do you say, “coming on to them.” But like a lot of Rick Moody's readers, I feel like I know him (every author's worst nightmare). He has become, for a generation of people in their 30s and 40s, a dark chronicler of American suburbia—mostly the East Coast variety, but it translates.

The 1997 movie version of Moody's 1994 novel, The Ice Storm, directed by the supremely stylish Ang Lee, clinched this reputation and widened his audience to include a whole new subspecies of Moody fans. For example, a young woman with long blond hair in the audience at Moody's recent reading at the Skirball Cultural Center (as black- and leather-clad a crowd as you'd ever hope to see on a L.A. weeknight) turned a question about '70s costumes in The Ice Storm into a private conversation with “Rick” that went on for several nostalgic and sentimental moments while the rest of the 50 or 60 people present tried gamely to lean into it.

Moody was in town to promote his new short story collection Demonology. A huge turnout at his reading the previous night, his first in L.A., at the Writers Guild, surprised even the author, who, like many New York literati—no matter how suave, well connected, or studio-fed—often feel disoriented anyway during the L.A. portion of their book tour. Moody's concern over having three drivers in two days was symptomatic. Asked by a guy in the back of the room about his story “Carousel” in Demonology—the only story in the collection set in L.A.—Moody confessed that he put the McDonald's where a gunman fires willy-nilly into a crowd in a parking lot on Pico Boulevard because it was the only street name in L.A. he knew.

One can't help but notice that a gold balloon in the shape of a star has floated to the ceiling above his head in a room otherwise devoid of decoration, except for a fake ficus. The balloon brings to mind childhood, which is significant because Moody's collection is bracketed by two stories full of grief about his sister, who died in 1995 at 37 while Moody was working on his novel Purple America (1997). The title story in Demonology was written two months after she died.

“I couldn't stop thinking about it,” Moody says. “I can't stop. It's not that I think writing makes you feel better, it's just that that's what I do; I put words down. My sister's death changed me and the way I live. I'm less tolerant of frothy insubstantial fiction.”

At the Skirball reading, Moody read “Boys,” which has a poetic, experimental quality, each sentence beginning with the word “boys,” as in “Boys enter the house in baseball gear,” “Boys skip school,” “Boys call each other retard, homo, geek,” circling around the death of the boys’ sister, whose dolls they buried in the backyard so many years ago. In fact, all of the book's stories gyrate between Moody's grief and his damped-down joy of writing, both of which, by the way, you can see on his face. He is capable of a pure grin when talking about things like italics, which he loves to use.

Moody lives on Fishers Island, N.Y., off Long Island, going into the city only to “see his lover” (an odd phrase for someone who seems to run from sentiment) and “get some culture.” He's playful with his fiction, but there is also an element of tight control. Madison Bell, Moody tells me when I ask him if reviews of his books matter to him, once called him too cerebral in a New York Times Book Review. Did that bother him? The next book, Purple America, was a kind of response. It was, in Moody's words, like a “great big suppurating wound” (hence the word “purple”).

Moody winces a lot. He often uses the phrase “I'd rather have root canal than. …” He was briefly an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and he winces, remembering that time. He is wearing one of those short black leather jackets with bands on the shoulders, which, when he winces, almost touch his ears.

Moody, born in 1962 in New York, was raised in New Canaan, Connecticut, and went to Brown and then Columbia. His literary family tree seems to grow thusly: Nathaniel Hawthorne begat William Burroughs who begat Stanley Elkin who begat Robert Coover (author of many novels, among them Ghost Town) who begat Rick Moody (Coover was in fact, a teacher of Moody's). Another branch has similar-tasting sap: Iggy Pop begat David Bowie who begat Moody.

But the strange creature that bubbles under the surface of Moody's fiction, certainly in his poetry and his critical writing, is William Burroughs. The rage in Moody's steaming accounts of suburbia, from Garden State (angry 20-year-olds frolic and complain in New Jersey) to The Ice Storm to Purple America frightens some readers, just as Burroughs frightened his. (“Hey,” Moody said once to an interviewer, “negation is often the site of affirmation, right?”).

Once the ice is broken, the audience asks some oddly familiar questions of the author, as if they feel they know him, too. “Have you had any funny day jobs?” someone asks, a nod to the fact that in one of the stories, the narrator has a job for which he must wear a chicken suit. Moody says his funniest day job was selling recorded tours at the Vatican exhibition when it was at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

“Is anyone else in your family a writer?” someone asks. “Well, no,” Moody says, but it was a family of readers. His father used to read passages from “Moby Dick” before each Thanksgiving dinner (picture that, in frosty old New Canaan in November). Moody studied creative writing at Brown, and now teaches part time in the MFA program at Bennington College in Vermont. He says (with stunning confidence) that on the plane, on the morning he leaves L.A., he plans to finish his next book, the story of a relative nicknamed Handkerchief Moody because he wore a veil in the Maine town where he lived. Handkerchief Moody kept diaries that he translated into Latin and then into code, Moody explains neutrally, which were easy to break because Handkerchief Moody only wrote about two things: The weather and masturbation, as in “June 2nd, cloudy, defiled myself.”

Many questions are about the Ang Lee movie, which Moody calls “brilliant and soulful.” He marvels at how the New Canaan of his boyhood was recreated in spring using hair gel to simulate ice in the trees. “I never wore that stuff,” he says of the costumes worn by Kevin Kline and others. “I just wore corduroys.”

The author asks the audience to please sign his copy of the book before leaving. He also signs theirs.


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