Moody Blues

Purple America, Rick Moody's third novel, is an old-fashioned stylistic tour de force -- a grand, overblown, angst-ridden and ultimately unruly work that wears its literariness on its sleeve and declares its naked ambition in every line, from its four-page first sentence, recently excerpted in The New Yorker, to its final prophetic warning: "Those with ears will hear." Those with eyes will have seen the fruits of Little, Brown & Co.'s $75,000 marketing campaign. A movement of sorts has even been conjured into existence, the so-called "younger apocalyptic foursome" of Moody and his friends David Foster Wallace, Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen (the "older" apocalyptic four being William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon). Behind Moody's desperate reach in this novel -- and his publisher's hyping of it -- lurks a single heartfelt desire: to see Moody catapulted out of his promising-young-writer phase and into the pantheon of mature American masters. Unfortunately, the apotheosis of Rick Moody will have to wait, for although Purple America is engaging, even brilliant, in places -- the tour-de-force opening, for example -- on the whole it is a very tiresome book. The action of the novel unfolds over the course of a single, hectic autumn night during which anti-hero Dexter (Hex) Raitliffe, a 38-year-old freelance PR man working out of New York, returns home to haute-suburban Connecticut to look after his sick-unto-death mother, Billie Raitliffe, in the wake of her abandonment by Hex's hated stepfather, a pathetically weak man named Lou Sloane, who has himself just been fired from his job at the local nuclear power plant. Dexter, a stuttering alcoholic man-child, is far from up to the task. Billie suffers from a debilitating, MS-like disease: Hex must bathe her, feed her, change her diapers. In truth, he can barely keep himself together, and he soon enlists the help of his old high-school flame, Jane Ingersoll, a woman once trained in nursing but otherwise educated in the school of hard knocks. There follows a night of drunken antics and generalized mayhem during which Billie asks Dexter to assist her in suicide and the Millstone Nuclear Power Facility, Lou's old stomping ground, goes on Code Two Alert, spilling radioactive waste into Long Island Sound. The book becomes a kind of collection of assorted leaks: diapers, coolant pipes, gas tanks, bath tubs, tea pots, tear ducts -- the bigger idea being that America, purple with bruised families and bad decor and a rotten, aging infrastructure, is itself melting down.One cannot deny the ambition behind all this, grandiose as it is. Where once critics complained that American fiction had gone soft, escaping into tiny minimalist tales of regional consequence instead of tackling what Tom Wolfe once called the "Billion-Footed Beast," these same critics now have to reckon with the opposite: books like Purple America and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which aspire to the realm of prophetic commentary on the whole of our premillennial culture.It's a tall order, to be sure. And one feels that where Moody knew he couldn't pull it off in terms of action and character alone, he turned too whole-heartedly in the direction of style and tone. There's a constant disparity in Purple America between Moody's prodigious display of technique and the really very small story he tells. Take, for example, this passage from the beginning of chapter nine:"Sleep is conferred through grace and sleep is never guaranteed and sleep should be indulged in without reservation, like the intoxication of autumn square dances, and the undigested footage of each grindingly familiar day that scrolls through the commercially interrupted video jukebox of consciousness as it folds into shutdown, this footage is suffered, no way around it, as you take your pleasure, you sleepers with your cut-and-paste and your cinema verite and your exquisite corpse, you sleepers left to struggle, numbering the widow Mrs. Billie Raitliffe among you, in this local restaurant, in the first booth, as gravitation works upon her, and her head slumps down upon her shoulder, sleep comes and you yield, arm squashed between one thigh and the faux-paneled wall of Penelope's Pantry ..."The sentence goes on for another five pages and is, in some respects, a small masterpiece. But does a scene in which Billie Raitliffe wets her pants while Hex orders a hamburger and Lou Sloane appears to do damage control on the restaurant's TV really warrant such pyrotechnics? It's a question that could be asked of the novel as a whole, which features, among other devices, shifting multiple narrators, a seemingly random use of italics, dashes in place of quotation marks, paragraphs that go on for pages at a time -- in short, the whole textbook of modernist and postmodernist technical practice. One wants, unfairly, to compare the book to a masterpiece like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, which displays a similar arsenal of technique but has the explosive subject matter to match it. All talk of movements and "apocalyptic foursomes" aside, Moody really is one of America's more talented and ambitious young writers. But if Purple America shows anything, it is that although he has certainly found his subject matter in suburban American angst, he still hasn't found his definitive voice. One suspects that part of what's behind the high-throttle prose of Purple America is a desire on Moody's part to put all comparisons between himself and tidy writers like Updike and Cheever to rest forever. Moody may well have accomplished just that with Purple America, but the cost has been what Faulkner used to call "grand failure."

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