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A day or two before picking up Rick Moody’s Purple America, I read an article in the New Yorker by George Steiner declaring that the prospects of the literary form known as the novel were shaky. Something about the Internet doing novels a bad turn—you know, cyberspace taking over breast-feeding, cocktail hours, and carwashes. But when I began to read Purple America, a smile came over my face. The first chapter is a virtuoso piece of work, a stunner, the kind of writing that makes mincemeat of predictions that the novel is dead and that people will in the future resort to concocting interactive narratives with their online pals. Because you can’t do a chapter like that yourself, no matter how many cyberbuddies you team up with. The wonder of writing is its explosive privacy, its daunting elitism. Great novels are created by individuals; their stories ransack the reader’s consciousness one-on-one—just the reader and her paperback. And if the novel is good enough, she looks around the room furtively and grins at the massive and secret pleasure of it all. That’s what Moody’s opening pages are like. Here is real writing—passionate, provocative—though not purple—prose. If only he had kept writing like that.

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But first, the good news, of which there is plenty. The first chapter is delightfully reminiscent of the incantatory, neo-Biblical splendor of 18th-century poet Christopher Smart’s famous poem “Jubilate Agno,” wherein Smart, who was confined for insanity, esteems his cat Jeoffry: “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry./For he is a servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving Him./For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.”

Moody’s protagonist, Hex Raitliffe, is himself having a difficult time with reality, and we join him as the narrator covers the finer points of his efforts to bathe his paralytic mother:

“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…whosoever bends by hand her sclerotic limbs, as if reassuring himself about the condition of a hinge…who has wiped stalactites of drool from his mother’s mouth with a moistened violet washcloth…”

The four-page chapter goes on in this manner, jarring the reader out of an easy assessment—oh sure, it’s about a fellow taking care of his mother. By the time these pages are done, the situation between Hex and his mother has been rendered in all its nobility and depressing detail, and the reader is hooked and horrified at once. In case one inclines to adore Hex unguardedly because of his devotion, Moody pulls off a wonderful change of pace with the last paragraph: “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.”

Purple America’s story takes place during the course of a single night in Connecticut. Like Joyce before him, Moody makes much of a few hours. Hex’s mother wastes away because of her disease, her husband of 15 years—Hex’s stepfather—cannot shoulder the burden any longer and decides to leave her, Hex is summoned away from Manhattan where he feigns work as a glorified party-thrower, he meets the neighborhood sweetheart of his teenage dreams and manages a clumsy near-consummation with her, he gets very drunk and blows up his rental car in front of an old Congregationalist church that has been converted into a gay bar, he tracks down his wayward stepfather in order to pummel him, he tries to convince his mother he is not up for an assisted suicide, and all the while there is a meltdown at the local nuclear power facility where Hex’s stepfather serves as a supervisor.

Though the narrator here and there asserts that this is a story about America, it is mercifully Connecticut-specific in its trappings, tones, and folkways; it is nicely grounded in a particular time and place, and thus compelling. The novel traverses the dark night by exploring the thoughts of the various characters, but the story is framed in the main by Hex’s troubled consciousness. Moody has provided for a wonderful and varied evening. The prose and the angles of perception are for the most part exceedingly refreshing. Moody’s eye for detail and his ability to communicate it are of the first order.

The bad news is that Moody abandons the hallucinatory glow of Christopher Smart for the scientistic and somewhat geeky stance of Thomas Pynchon. The story moves along quickly and the writing is often fine, but more and more frequently the reader notices that Moody has taken to listing things instead of writing about them. To be sure, these are masterful lists, the collections of an acute observer equipped with a keen vocabulary, but they are lists nonetheless, and they are the worse for operating along Pynchonesque lines.

Moody builds up breathtakingly beautiful scenes of human conflict only to describe the action with scientific babble. There is one chapter where this is done to remarkable effect, feelings and thoughts reduced to blood-pressure readings and neurological happenings, but elsewhere it seems a failure of imagination and an annoyance. Give me the voice of a mad poet any day—or Moody when he’s not doing lists.

A friend asked me why I was so irritated with Purple America, and my answer was this: because the novel could have been exceptional. You may recall going to see a film by a favorite director who seems to have assembled a dream movie, but missteps begin to crop up that make you want to scream. You take his failings personally because his efforts have absorbed you. Purple America should garner many discerning aficionados who take pleasure in Moody’s promise and hope he can sustain it for a whole book next time.CP