Of the British poet Philip Larkin, one obituarist observed that while Larkin’s verse could not be faulted on technical grounds, he still could never be admitted to the front rank of poets because his work did not affirm anything. The novelist Rick Moody inspires some similar reflection. Though very accomplished, in what I think we are supposed to call the postmodern style, one seeks in vain in his novels (I have not read his short stories) for any hint of a belief that life is worth living.
Moody’s first book, Garden State, was a dismal, very first-novelish, tale of the blue-collar blues: underemployed twenty-somethings addling their brains with booze, drugs and rock music in the post-industrial wastelands of New Jersey. (In the photograph on the dust jacket, Mr Moody even contrived to look like Bruce Springsteen.) A sort of watery sunlight came through at the book’s end, but the overall atmosphere was one of gloom and futility.
A shower of gold has descended on Mr Moody’s second novel, The Ice Storm: it has just been made into a movie by the brilliant and trendy director Ang Lee, and should be on general release at about the same time as Purple America (publishers are not fools). In The Ice Storm the angst was suburban and upper-middle-class, but just as relentless. The publisher’s hype raised inevitable comparisons with Updike and Cheever; comparisons which only serve to highlight the problem I am trying to identify. Updike belongs, and Cheever belonged, to a generation still in touch, if only at second hand, with the older America. Even at their most mordant, they never quite shake off that post-war élan, that sense that what is is so very, so unexpectedly better than what was. In the worst depths of accidie their people still possess a vestigial understanding that as boring and pointless as suburban life frequently seems, it sure beats farm work. Mr Moody’s characters do not know this.
Now it is indubitably true everywhere, even in the suburbs, that “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.” But that is only the first half of the proposition as originally stated and cannot sustain a novel, much less a whole body of work. In Purple America I think I detect some dawning realisation of this truth on Mr Moody’s part. I hope I am right. At his glummest he is a very good writer; when cheerfulness breaks through he is superb.
Meet, then, Hex Raitliffe, an overweight loser mottled with social stigmata (stammer, drinking problem, meaningless job, single in middle age). Hex has been summoned from Manhattan to his mother’s house in coastal Connecticut. Billie, the mother, is in the last stages of a progressive neurological disease. Once a woman of spirit and sensibility, she is now quadriplegic, almost speechless, and prone to wet herself. (It seems to me that an indwelling catheter is indicated … but the author is determined to spare us none of the grisly realities of quadriplegic care.)
The occasion of the summons is that Billie’s husband Lou, Hex’s stepfather, has abandoned her. On learning this, Hex pours himself a stiff drink. Then he pours a few more, and sets about turning the crisis into a catastrophe. The encompassing action of the book covers only a few hours — Friday night to Saturday morning — but that is as long as it takes for commonplace events to unwind into chaos, as they do here in both the public and private worlds. For while Hex is blundering through his own travails, his stepfather Lou, stopping off at the nuclear power plant for a last afternoon at work before heading off out of everybody’s life, encounters a major leak of radioactive material into Long Island Sound.
This reactor leak is part of a nucear-fission subtheme that forms the novel’s deep background. In flashbacks we learn of Hex’s father, who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War Two and later made a modest fortune in uranium mining, but died of an aneurism when Hex was eleven. A very dramatic passage adapted from Jungk’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns is inserted; and there is even a cameo appearance by that ultimate emblem of life-sucks teen nihilism, our old pal the mushroom cloud. I confess I am not sure what function all this serves, unless to lift the general mood of doom and hopelessness from the personal level to the universal. There is a hint that Hex’s problems may have begun with the irradiation of his father’s gonads, but I don’t think this helps our understanding any. And certainly we are not meant to suppose that Mr Moody is playing word games with “fission” (the stepfather has split, see?) — he is much too clever and subtle a writer for that sort of thing. Nor is he the type to bang us over the head with anti-technology propaganda. Probably he just felt dissatisfied with the scope of his story and wished to enlarge it. Nothing wrong with that: Millstone is a real nuclear power station, which really has been in trouble with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and although anxiety about The Bomb seems quaint and 1950-ish, it is still an astounding and terrifying fact — one which, in my and (I think) Mr Moody’s opinion, we have not yet properly internalized — that we can annihilate a city, a million persons, with a device the size of an office water-cooler. It does no harm to be reminded.