ought to come with
expiration dates, just
like milk or medicine.
Rick Moody's third
America, is an
book whose prevailing
metaphor -- the
faltering promise of
the nuclear age and with it the decline of the
American nuclear family -- has begun to
curdle. The military and civilian uses of
atomic physics have been with us for only half
a century, but somehow their fictional uses,
irresistible over the years to numberless
writers and filmmakers, already seem as inert
as a spent fuel rod.
This subtle handicap never keeps Purple
America from succeeding as an uncommonly
empathetic fugue of voices emerging from
what's left of the Raitliffe family of Fenwick,
Conn., during one night in 1992. The novel
starts with awkward, stammering, prematurely
middle-aged Hex Raitliffe bathing his
paralyzed, vaguely senile mother, Billie, in the
upstairs bathroom of her once-stylish home.
"If he's a hero," Moody writes of Hex, "then
heroes are five-and-dime, and the world is as
crowded with them as it is with stray pets,
worn tires, and missing keys." In the second
chapter, the point of view shifts to Billie. This
pattern repeats throughout the book. At first
we resist such a wrench, having spent the
previous pages inhabiting Hex's mind with the
intimacy only very fine writing can create. But
before long we are Billie's, and the subsequent
sidesteps into Billie's overwhelmed second
husband Lou's mind, or that of Hex's
unforgotten ninth-grade love, Jane, are just as
Reading Purple America can feel like
dancing a quadrille with four very different
partners. On we go, propelled from
consciousness to consciousness by Moody's
prodigious gift for ventriloquism and large,
supple vocabulary. Along the way, Billie asks
Hex to promise to help end her life, and Lou
troubleshoots a crisis at the Millstone Nuclear
Power Plant, where he works. The action of
the book obeys Artistotle's unities, taking
place over a single night on Long Island
Sound, but this doesn't keep Moody from
flashing back twice to the letters of Hex's late
father, who worked on the Manhattan Project
in what seemed the golden age of atomic
experimentation, long before it became such a
millstone around the national neck.
Connecticut character studies and nuclear
questions aren't incompatible subjects, as John
Cheever showed in the classic short story
"The Brigadier and the Golf Widow," in
which an upper-middle-class man building a
backyard bomb shelter ultimately confronts
the possibility that he just might want the
world to end. But in Purple America, the
cosmic stakes feel just slightly extrinsic, an
overlay, estranged from the urgency of the
story. Occasionally mistrusting his
considerable powers, Moody's like the
off-duty cop who uses his siren to get home
even when he's got the turnpike all to himself. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ambitious, stylistically dazzling and heartfelt, this fourth novel from a Pushcart Prize winner (Garden State) chronicles the meltdown in a single evening of a well-to-do Connecticut family. Dexter "Hex" Raitliffe-middle-aged, stuttering, alcoholic-returns home to care for his ailing mother, Billie. Suffering from a degenerative disease, Billie has lost her mobility, her speech-and her hope. So exhausted is her second husband, Lou (manager at a crumbling nuclear power plant beset with problems of its own), that he reluctantly abandons her. Their lives come to crisis poignantly and violently in one night; Moody's dense prose evokes their "dance of feelings" in their disparate voices. Tenderness and guilt war in Lou's mind even as we understand Hex's conviction that his stepfather, who callously left his farewell to his wife typed out on her voice synthesizer, is monstrous and selfish. Hex's own struggles against self-abasement and denial and Billie's rage at her illness are also powerfully rendered in urgent, intense stream-of-consciousness. The novel catalogues the detritus that fills their thoughts; fragments of the technical jargon of nuclear power and of neurological medicine; the features on the face of coastal Connecticut; Billie's obsession with lavender. That linguistic play is dazzling-so much so that it sometimes overshadows the drama it is meant to serve (as in an episode in which Billie finds herself neglected at the restaurant where she and Hex were to dine). It serves less ably the various secondary characters. But the specificity and nuance of the voices of Hex, Billie and Lou drive the story towards a climax that is grotesque, inexorable and deeply sad.
Moody's sentences travel great distances; they knock the breath out of you. So does Purple America.
You come up gasping on the last page.
Moody returns to the site of his previous novel (The Ice Storm, 1994), the Gothic underside of Connecticut's privileged suburbs, and once again finds despair, half-suppressed fears, and a pervasive anger.
At the heart of the narrative is Dexter Raitliffe (appropriately, given his ill-starred attempts at life, nicknamed "Hex"), a disaffected boomer summoned home when his despairing stepfather abandons Hex's increasingly ill mother. Once a great beauty, she is now confined to a wheelchair, incontinent, entirely dependent on others. Money isn't the problem; Hex's father, who died in 1963, had amassed a fortune in a manner he had been careful to conceal. Hex, who works sporadically in public relations, is drifting, waiting for something to happen. His mother, terrified of descending into a long twilit death, makes him promise to kill her when her decline becomes final. Lou Sloane, Hex's stepfather, hovers in the background, debating whether or not to go back home while Hex, reluctant to stay, does so, fighting unsuccessfully to repress recollections of a painful childhood. He drinks, indulges in a halting romance, and quietly comes apart. The plot is unsurprising, but Moody's relentlessly original voice rings new changes on it, weaving together a medley of voices (Hex, his mother, Lou) believably, desperately raking over the events of their lives in an attempt to find out how things have gone so wrong. The language has a jazzy punch and freshness, flawlessly catching the ebb and flow of thought and the way in which fear adds an edge of frenzy to even the smallest events. The sad climax is predictable, yet is nonetheless powerful and moving.
A few scenes go on too long, and some of the ruminations could have been trimmed, but these minor matters don't disguise the fact that a very talented writer is beginning to hit his stride, working out a highly original language to illuminate the quiet terrors of suburban life.
Read an Excerpt
By Rick Moody
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1997 Rick Moody
All rights reserved.
Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die. Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother's body, whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first-floor tub, lifting one of her alabaster legs and then the other over its lip, whosoever bathes her with Woolworth's soaps in sample sizes, whosoever twists the creaky taps and tests the water on the inside of his wrist, whosoever shovels a couple of tablespoons of rose bath salts under the billowing faucet and marvels at their vermilion color, whosoever bends by hand her sclerotic limbs, as if reassuring himself about the condition of a hinge, whosoever has kissed his mother on the part that separates the lobes of her white hair and has cooed her name while soaping underneath the breast where he was once fed, whosoever breathes the acrid and dispiriting stench of his mother's body while scrubbing the greater part of this smell away with Woolworth's lavender soaps, who has pushed her discarded bra and oversized panties (scattered on the tile floor behind him) to one side, away from the water sloshing occasionally over the edge of the tub and choking the runoff drain, who has lost his footing on these panties, panties once dotted with blood of children unconceived, his siblings unconceived, panties now intended to fit over a vinyl undergarment, who has wiped stalactites of drool from his mother's mouth with a moistened violet washcloth, who has swept back the annoying violet shower curtain the better to lift up his stick-figure mother and to bathe her ass, where a sweet and infantile shit sometimes collects, causing her both discomfort and shame, whosoever angrily manhandles the dial on the bathroom radio (balanced on the toilet tank) with one wet hand in an effort to find a college station that blasts only compact disc recordings of train accidents and large-scale construction operations (he should be over this noise by his age), whosoever selects at last the drummers of Burundi on WUCN knowing full well that his mother can brook only the music of the Tin Pan Alley period and certain classics, and whosoever has then reacted guiltily to his own selfishness and tuned to some lite AM station featuring the greatest hits of swing, whosoever will notice in the course of his mission the ripe light of early November as it is played out on the wall of the bathroom where one of those plug-in electric candles with plastic base is the only source of illumination, whosoever waits in this half-light while his mother takes her last bodily pleasure: the time in which her useless body floats in the warm, humid, even lapping of rose-scented bathwater, a water which in spite of its pleasures occasionally causes in his mother transient scotoma, ataxia, difficulty swallowing, deafness, and other temporary dysfunctions consistent with her ailment, whosoever looks nonetheless at his pacific mom's face in that water and knows — in a New Age kind of way — the face he had before he was born, whosoever weeps over his mother's condition while bathing her, silently weeps, without words or expressions of pity or any nose-blowing or honking while crying, just weeps for a second like a ninny, whosoever has thereafter recovered quickly and forcefully from despair, whosoever has formulated a simple gratitude for the fact that he still has a mother, but who has nonetheless wondered at the kind of astral justice that has immobilized her thus, whosoever has then wished that the bath was over already so that he could go and drink too much at a local bar, a bar where he will encounter the citizens of this his hometown, a bar where he will see his cronies from high school, those who never left, those who have stayed to become civic boosters, those who have sent kids to the same day school they themselves attended thirty years before, whosoever has looked at his watch and yawned, while wondering how long he has to let his mother soak, whosoever soaps his mother a second time, to be sure that every cranny is disinfected, that every particle of dirt, every speck of grime, is eliminated, whosoever steps into a draining tub to hoist his mother from it, as if he were hoisting a drenched parachute from a stream bed, whosoever has balanced her on the closed toilet seat so that he might dry her with a towel of decadent thickness (purple), whosoever has sniffed, lightly, undetectably, the surface of her skin as he dries her, whosoever has refused to put his mother's spectacles on her face just now, as he has in the past when conscripted into bathing her, as he ought to do now, though in all likelihood she can only make out a few blurry shapes, anyway (at least until the cooling of her insulted central nervous system), whosoever wishes to prolong this additional disability, however, because when she is totally blind in addition to being damn near quadriplegic she faces up to the fact that her orienting skills are minimal, whosoever slips his mother's panties up her legs and checks the dainty hairless passage into her vulva one more time, because he can't resist the opportunity here for knowledge, whosoever gags briefly at his own forwardness, whosoever straps his mother's bra onto her, though the value of a bra for her is negligible, whosoever slips a housedress over her head, getting first one arm and then the other tangled in the neck hole, whosoever reaches for and then pulls the plug on the radio because the song playing on it is too sad, some terribly sad jazz ballad with muted trumpet, whosoever puts slippers on his mother's feet, left and then right, fiddling with her toes briefly first, simply to see if there is any sensation there, because her wasting disease is characterized by periods in which some feeling or sensation suddenly returns to affected extremities (though never all sensation), and likewise periods in which sensation is precipitously snuffed out, whosoever notes the complete lack of response in his mother when he pinches her big toe, and whosoever notes this response calmly, whosoever now finally sets his mother's glasses on her nose and adjusts the stems to make sure they are settled comfortably on her ears, whosoever kisses his mother a second time where her disordered hair is thinnest and takes her now fully into his arms to carry her to the wheelchair in the doorway, whosoever says to his wasting mom while stuttering mildly out of generalized anxiety and because of insufficient pause for the inflow and outflow of breath, Hey, Mom, you look p-p-p-p-p-pretty fabulous t-t-tonight, you look like a million b-b-bucks, whosoever says this while unlocking the brake on the chair, whosoever then brings the chair to a stop in the corridor off the kitchen, beneath a cheap, imitation American Impressionist landscape that hangs in that hallway, just so that he can hug his mom one more time because he hasn't seen her in months, because he is a neglectful son, because her condition is worse, always worse, whosoever fantasizes nonetheless about lashing her chair to a television table on casters so that he can just roll her and the idiot box with its barbiturate programming around the house without having to talk to her because he's been watching this decline for two decades or more and he's fed up with comforting and self-sacrifice, the very ideas make him sick, whosoever settles her in the kitchen by the Formica table and opens the refrigerator looking for some mush that will do the job for this evening, some mush that he can push down her throat and on which she will not spend the whole night choking as she sometimes does, so that he will have to use that little medical vacuum cleaner thing, that dental tool, to remove saliva and food particles from her gullet, tiny degraded hunks of minestrone and baby food, whosoever trips briefly over his mother's chair trying to get around it on the way to the chocolate milk in the fridge and jams his toe, shit, shit, shit, sorry, Ma, whosoever then changes his mind and fetches out a six-pack of the finest imported beer that he brought himself from a convenience store in town, and pops open one can for himself and one for his mother, whosoever then dips into his mother's beer a weaving and trembling plastic straw, whosoever then carries this beverage to his mother and fits the end of the straw between his mother's lips, exhorting her to drink, drink, whosoever then tilts back his own head emptying a fine imported beer in a pair of swallows so that he might move on to the next, whosoever then hugs his mom (again) feeling, in the flush of processed barley and hops, that his life is withal the best of lives, full of threat and bounty, bad news and good, affluence and penury, the sacred and the profane, the masculine and the feminine, the present and the repetitions of the past, 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.
Hex Raitliffe. And if he's a hero, then heroes are five-and-dime, and the world is as crowded with them as it is with stray pets, worn tires, and missing keys.CHAPTER 2
His mother's voice, Billie Raitliffe's voice, as she hears it now, as she hears herself through the dense matter of her physique, Hey there, cut it out, as the beer pours from her mouth and down a dish-towel bib and through the bib to the front of her housedress, soaking through its drab beige design, Hey!, her voice is faint and inscrutable, she knows, in the autumn of these neuro-pathogens, full of mumblings and susurrings, imprecisions, nonsense, phonemic accidents, nonsyntactic vocalizations, unfinished thoughts and sentences; her voice is delivered at an improbably slow velocity, and with evident exertion. She knows. She sends no message but pathos. Her son doesn't understand, for example, that the can of imported beer, mostly emptied upon her now, and trickling along the linoleum floor toward one baseboard, is of no interest to her; her son doesn't understand that she doesn't care for beer any longer, as she never much did, feeling that beer is the beverage of the disadvantaged, not at all the choice in her day, when the basement was full of the pine crates in which collectibles arrived with their dusty exteriors, the wine of the Great Depression being in her opinion the finest, the wine of the Bordeaux region of France reaching a state of unparalleled accomplishment during the thirties. The straw falls from her pursed lips, topples out of the can, and cartwheels across her lap, before splashing to rest in the beer pooling by the side of her chair. Her son doesn't understand. He glares at her and carries the empty to a to-be-recycled carton of reinforced cardboard by the back door, and begins again to rummage in the refrigerator. The reason she has summoned him here, having sent home the nurse, Aviva, for the weekend, is among the sentences so far not fully expressed. She is aware of this — as her son, nervously trying to trim a fingernail with his teeth (Don't hang on the door of the refrigerator, please, she wants to say), slams the door of same and then lurches out of the kitchen, returning with a bottle of bourbon from the bar in the pantry. Her son tries to anticipate her needs, to preempt her need for words, to eliminate a language based on need, and thus to eliminate language (and with it this drama of anguished communication). He reformulates all the conversation into simple yays or nays. You d-d-don't want the beer? Are you comfortable? Are you warm enough? D-do you want another light on? Kind of d-dark in here, M-m-mom, isn't it? Do you need to be changed? The nurse t-take you out today? However, even this simple, binary information system is faulty and replete with misunderstandings. Because her replies, mere probabilities of meaning when you get right down to it, are mostly formulated through micro-gesticulations, a semantics of the faintly conveyed message — the half-closed eyelid, the pressing together of chapped or drooling lips, the head cocked slightly to one side, or the epiglottal choking sound — those communications still permitted by the encrusted linkages of her nerves. This is the foundation of her language now, she is well aware, and therefore it's the language of mothers and sons, the language of love between the Raitliffe generations, anyway; all recollections, beseechments, expressions of tenderness, along with her more mundane requests and importunities, must begin with this semantics of gesticulation. Which is to say that speech, for her, is soon going to be a thing of the past. The speech act will follow, into the gloaming, her handwriting, her perfumed thank you notes, love letters, her journal entries, her business letters, even her signature, that florid and legally binding evidence of self. Her speech will vanish as these things have vanished. But as Hex spoons a few ounces of applesauce into a teacup for her, My God, applesauce is tedious beyond belief, the constraint of silence is more than she can bear, suddenly, she just can't relax, and from inside of her she tries each muscle, each of her smallest appendages, the knuckle of a toe that had once been painted lavender, a fingertip that once tickled the ivories. In the lockbox where she is located, she focuses all remaining intention on her arm, thinking, feeling, Dear, there's something I need to tell you. Could you please settle down for just a minute so that I can explain something to you? Could you please stay clear-headed long enough to have a conversation? There is something troubling I need to ask of you. She feels this arm moving, she's sure of it, but when she looks (through trifocal glasses), she can see that it is stationary, this arm is stationary in her lap, white downy fuzz upon alabaster flesh, this flesh wrapped haphazardly, loosely upon the ulna. No muscle to speak of. She tries to reach for him, for her son, but the arm, like the other, sits in her lap, left hand holding the spastic right. The left side of her where all the remaining movement has been warehoused can still travel a couple of centimeters to and fro, maybe an inch, but it seems today, when she really needs it, to drowse and idle. When Billie catches her next head cold or cold sore or is bitten by her next mosquito this mobility will — if the past is any guide — abandon her as it has elsewhere. That's how the disease works. (Here Hex Raitliffe sneezes ominously and then looks distractedly around him for a tissue, a strand of mucus yo-yoing from his nose. He staggers to a dish towel, head tilted back, scours his upper lip, and then returns to the applesauce.) This exertion, though, and the transient paralysis caused by the bath, leave her exhausted, too tired, and she doesn't know if she will be able to get tongue and teeth and breath around the simple magic of a few consonants and vowels. The alphabet is all hairpin turns and pyrotechnical displays. She thinks: 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. What a rich store of memories she has, outside of what might be heard or seen — as Hex fixes himself a drink — what a dance of feelings at the sound of the ice hitting the bottom of the tumbler again. Her son is like his father, as so many sons are, she thinks, and this association leads her astray, this association collides with the present and then darts off parallel, and she follows the past, as she is free to do, until suddenly she comes up short two years ago. To when they gave her a gift. Her son and her second husband, it was Christmastime, and they had given her the gift, bought her a notebook-style computer, Dell Corporation with PCMCIA Type II slot and Yamaha YM262 twenty-voice synthesizer and Mediavision pro audio studio, as Louis, her husband, had described it, to be bundled with Microsoft's popular HandiSpeak software, mostly portable, mostly wireless, a new prototype, a wireless technology, so that the notebook could sit on top of the tray table on her chair and broadcast the message back to the desktop system (situated on her antique rolltop). What did the facsimile voice sound like? The voice of HandiSpeak? The three of them, she remembers, in the tableau around the Christmas tree in the drafty, poorly lit living room, ceilings too high, tree overdecorated, overtinseled (by Hex), the three of them pulling the ribbons from the gift, well, Louis and Hex pulling the ribbons from it, herself simply watching, heavy cables and obscure plugs and cords snaking out from under hastily and poorly folded wrapping paper, little seraphic elves dancing on a purple field, pine needles and stray tinsel strands dusting the surface of the black and gray plastic casing as they dusted all the surfaces in the living room. Hex and Louis looked at her for approval, and because back then, two years ago, she still had a little bit of a nod left, she nodded noncommittally, and her husband goaded on her son as if he were still a boy and not in his middle thirties, Go ahead, boot it up, and Hex did as he was told, turned on the monitor, shreds of plastic tape still affixed to it like sutures, all the gleaming red operating lamps illumined, there was the Windows desktop, appearing on the monitor like a reassuring first gasp from an infant, and then the HandiSpeak pointer, with its stylized index finger and rolled-up sleeve. Before them, on the screen (Louis rolled her closer so that she could see) in an ornate computer font — Garamond Antiqua — were the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, as perfect and simple as atoms must have seemed when Democritus (she thought) imagined them, those simple little squiggles of which arguments were formed, those squiggles that divided houses and united them, that were arranged into the words intoned over baptisms and deaths. Those letters taken from her by her illness. Hex used the mouse apparatus, the ergonomically designed joystick requiring an absolute minimum of mobility on the part of its hapless user, and clicked on the alpha of the HandiSpeak alphabet:
a aback abandon abase abate abbreviate abdicate abdomen abduct aberrant abet abhor ability abject ablaze able abnegate abnormal aboard abode abolish A-bomb abominate abort about above abrasion abscess abscond absent absolute abstain abstract absurd abuse abusive abysmal accelerate accent accept acceptance access accessible accident accommodate accost accretion accrue accumulate accurate accursed accuse ace ache achieve acid acknowledge acme acorn acoustic acquisition acquit acre acrimony acronym across act action activate active actor actual actuary acute adagio Adam adamant adapt add addict address adequate adhere adjective adjoin adjourn adjunct adjust ad-lib administer admiral admire admit admonish adolescent adore adorn adornment adrenaline adulate adult adulterate adultery advance adventure adverse advertise
Excerpted from Purple America by Rick Moody. Copyright © 1997 Rick Moody. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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