- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
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