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.