Purple America: A Novel

( 4 )


On the occasion of the paperback release of Demonology, Back Bay Books takes pleasure in making all four of Rick Moody's acclaimed earlier works of fiction available in handsome new paperback editions.

In this tour-de-force literary triumph, the bestselling author of The Ice Storm offers a masterly novel in the tradition of Updike and Roth. Over the course of a single incendiary night, a young man, his mother, and his stepfather discover the profound connections ...

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On the occasion of the paperback release of Demonology, Back Bay Books takes pleasure in making all four of Rick Moody's acclaimed earlier works of fiction available in handsome new paperback editions.

In this tour-de-force literary triumph, the bestselling author of The Ice Storm offers a masterly novel in the tradition of Updike and Roth. Over the course of a single incendiary night, a young man, his mother, and his stepfather discover the profound connections between the forces that bind both family and the society in which familial love is played out.

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Editorial Reviews

David Kipen

Certain metaphors ought to come with expiration dates, just like milk or medicine. Rick Moody's third novel, Purple America, is an ambitious, funny, beautifully written 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 wrenching.

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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316559775
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 5/4/1998
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Rick Moody
Rick Moody, a child of the 1970s and the privileged middle class of the Northeast, has become a specialist in dissecting both in his novels and short stories, which tend to focus on the troubled state of the nuclear family.


A bitter wind blows through the suburban landscapes created by novelist Rick Moody. Consider the elements of his second -- and most famous -- creation, The Ice Storm: Watergate hearings, marital infidelity, spouse-swapping key parties, familial disenfranchisement, and one teenager's chance meeting with an errant power line. All over Thanksgiving weekend.

"Rick Moody's The Ice Storm," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Adam Begley in 1994, "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."

These Gothic-tidy lawns are the stuff of Moody's childhood. Though born in New York City, he grew up in various suburbs, including New Caanan, Connecticut, the home of the Hood family, his hapless, disconnected brood in The Ice Storm. A child of the 1970s, he apparently took copious notes, because his novels are filled with the detail of the period: the books, the articles, Masters & Johnson, Creem.

"[The Ice Storm] 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 Los Angeles Times noted. "The argot, the foibles, the fads and the artifacts: They're all here, meticulously catalogued and historically framed with discussions of the design, politics and groping psychology of the period."

In Purple America, Moody again visits the neighborhoods of privileged Connecticut, exploring the disappointments and debauchery of the American middle class. Set over a 24-hour period, the novel follows late-30s alcoholic Hex Raitliffe, who comes home to care for his invalid mother, abandoned by his stepfather, who manages a nearby nuclear power plant.

The Chicago Tribune pronounced the novel "dazzling" and even drew comparisons to Shakespeare: "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."

Following his studies at Brown University and the master of fine arts program at Columbia University, Moody worked as an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- a position that, one interviewer noted, made Moody wince upon recollection -- before releasing his first novel, Garden State, in 1992. He has also released two collections of short fiction, as well as a memoir, The Black Veil, in which he talks of the substance abuse that threw him into a life-threatening depression and recalls a relative who wore a black veil for much of his adult life, as atonement for accidentally killing a childhood friend.

"I'm naturally drawn to stuff you're not supposed to talk about," he told the The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. "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."

Good To Know

Moody wore a veil during his stint at the Yaddo artists' colony, where he worked on his memoir and family history, The Black Veil.

His father used to read from Moby-Dick at the dinner table each Thanksgiving.

Moody likes to write on the road on his laptop, listening to experimental music -- as a way to avoid distraction.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Hiram F. Moody, III
    2. Hometown:
      New York, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 18, 1961
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1983; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1986

Reading Group Guide

1. Despite Hex's obvious failures, he is not entirely unlikable. What are the qualities about him that make him a sympathetic character? What clues about his childhood explain how he became the man he is? What about him is Jane Ingersoll attracted to?

2. Hex stutters out his words, at times almost incomprehensibly. Billie cannot speak without the electronic device. Louis and Allen communicate their most important thoughts in letters. What do you think Rick Moody is saying about communication today, about the way people discuss their feelings and emotions?

3. Louis Raitliffe leaves his wife Billie at a time in her life when she is most dependent on him. Is there any justification for his abandonment? Is there ever a time when a husband or wife can say, "I just can't take it any more. I have to live my own life"?

4. In addition to the nuclear power plant, what is leaking in Purple America? What is the significance of the leaking? How does it tie the Raitliffe family and plant together? How does the plant figure in the story?

5. What influence do Denny and Chris, the beatnik contractors who renovate the Raitliffes' house (chapter 11), have on Hex? Why is Hex especially susceptible to their influence? Have you ever had a similar experience -- that is, has a person you have known only fleetingly left an indelible impression on you or otherwise altered the course of your life?

6. Every couple's first sexual encounter has its awkward moments. What's unusual about Hex and Jane's first encounter (chapter 18)? Why do you think Jane whispers to herself things are pretty good when the coupling is over?

7. The color purple figures prominently throughout the book. What is the significance of it? How does Rick Moody use the different shades of purple -- e.g. lilac, royal purple, lavender -- to describe moods and feelings. Do you think this is an effective writing tool?

8. The relationship between Billie and Hex Raitliffe -- a mother and her son -- is at the heart of Purple America. But much of what happens in the novel relates directly to Hex's feelings about his father, Allen, and his stepfather, Louis. How do Hex's emotions and attitudes toward these two men evolve throughout the course of the novel? How is Hex himself changed by this evolution in attitude?

9. Hex saves his mother's life by getting her to the hospital and helps her die as soon as they return home. What changes his mind? Discuss the conflicting emotions that go through his mind on page 279.

10. Is the last chapter of Purple America -- Allen's letter to Billie -- tragic or hopeful? Does it make you feel sorry for Billie or relieved that she had some happiness in her life, someone who seemed truly to love her?

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Customer Reviews

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( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 24, 2013

    Top Notch

    Great writing, with all the contemporary issues thrown in: our culture's love of guns, global energy issues, drinking problems, aging, sex, love, family conflicts, media. Just an amazing feat. Sorry it took me so long to come across this book. Anyone interested in contemporary fiction will want to read this book.

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  • Posted February 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    depressing, but couldn't put it down

    I appreciated this book for it's awkward characters...its extreme situation (I couldn't even IMAGINE this being my life) and I wondered through the first half why I'm attracted to such books. Really, it's because Moody is such a terrific writer - his opening is 2 full pages of ONE sentence, and while I'm usually turned off by things like that because they come off as trying too hard to be unique - I truly believe in this instance it helped create the urgency, the drama, the effect of the reader realizing - what the f**k??!!! Good book, I recommend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2001

    An Incredible Read

    This is incredible read... an amazing story

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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