It’s no secret that authors borrow much of their own story to use in their fiction, but it’s a big surprise when the author admits to it in print. That’s what author Rick Moody does in his latest book, The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions [Little, Brown & Co.].
Probably best known as the author of the book that became a movie, The Ice Storm, Rick Moody has been steadily churning out critically-acclaimed stories for the last several years. And right now it seems the shelves are seeing a landslide of his work at once with The Black Veil and two story collections now in paperback, Demonology, and The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven [both Back Bay Books, from Little, Brown & Co.]. If you’ve read or are planning to read The Black Veil, be sure to also read the short story collections, or vice-versa. Apart from being entertaining in and of themselves, these collections are neat little bookends to support the story of The Black Veil, in which the complex and intriguing little parcels of Moody all come together. Moody’s fans will suddenly make sense of the symbols he repeats over and over in his fiction: the last train car, the veil, the color black, a dead sister.
Rick Moody likes to play with form, and his short stories best reflect this. We have stories that are written as term papers, as footnotes, as fables. There are stories told in bibliography, movie treatment, and catalogues. Once one reads a few books by Moody, they’ll see the same story replayed over and over, but with a new and different twist: it's all the story of substance abuse, loneliness, futility, not belonging and not knowing why the hell we’re on this Earth.
“Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set” (from Demonology), for instance, is a brilliant little piece (that we later learn from TBV is just one of his many versions of autobiography), told to us in CD liner notes and song titles documenting his various eras. How many of us learn about our friends by perusing through their book, record, and CD collections? With so much revealed in the way people spend their money and their free time, Moody has given the reader a musical timeline of his mind. “Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13” does the same thing in a different form, telling a story through books available and what they mean to him. You have to wonder if he really owns this stuff.
Sometimes Rick Moody's characters are male, sometimes female, sometimes cross-gender. It doesn’t matter. In every case it’s a depressive someone with huge potential who’s made a few wrong turns and wound up in Loserville. Sometimes those wrong turns are drugs (major drugs: acid, crack, heroin), sometimes it’s alcohol (staggering quantities), sometimes it’s sex (S&M, domination, underworld NY clubs where you auction yourself off to the highest bidder), but it’s always, always a bleak escape littered with nescience and desperation that haunts the story and leaves the reader thinking about it for days.
Moody’s at the height of his creativity with “Boys” (also in Demonology), a story told in sparse, stark statements about boys. Few details are given, yet the reader gets it. These are boys we know. These are our boys, our children, our brothers, ourselves --as well as our troubles, our histories and our lives.
In all his work, the reader is never far outside of Moody’s head, and it’s a style that works for him. His writing is often free-associated, his dialogue has no quotes, sentences last forever, every clause taking you another mile in, and everything is filtered through the narrator’s (sometimes unreliable, sometimes chemically altered) perspective. Moody’s politics aren’t far from the surface of the stories, too. You feel his disdain for the waspy upper classes, the New England private prep schools, the shallow conversation of themed social events—all, not so coincidentally, a part of his own history.
And that brings us back around to The Black Veil, which opens (as do some of his other stories), on the platform at the last car of a New York subway train, where he sees a homeless man who hides his face inside a hood. From there we’re taken down a long, somewhat convoluted journey into his own family history. The historical references and text feel rather long, but the scenes in modern life, particularly in the family home, the detox facility, and in Hoboken with stray dogs on his front step (another image repeated in a short story) are particularly good. His writing of addiction and coming clean is written with such honesty and sharpness that it’s difficult not to feel you’re going through it with him. At the root of Moody’s troubles are generations of shame: shame for himself, his father and his father’s choice of vehicles, his grandfather’s poor business decisions, back, back, back two hundred years to the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote of “Handkerchief Moody,” who veiled his face from the shame of accidentally killing his boyhood friend.
And so we venture into the back country of Maine with Rick and his father in modern day, tracing the steps of their possible ancestor, ‘Handkerchief’, reading journal entries and gravestones, raiding libraries, and trying to discover the truth about where they came, as if that would make today any better.
Toward the end of TBV, Moody writes of the color black much in the way that William Gass writes of the color blue in On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. It’s a stream of consciousness association of color clichés, definitions and anecdotes; one meaning connecting to another meaning of the color’s name, use, connotation or representation. It’s an effective ending, leaving behind layers of feeling about the black veil and black itself. In the black veil, Moody taps into everything that is black, that is veiled, and that is Moody. The reader is on a genealogical journey to his family roots, the root of his name and his temperament.
I pity the reader who identifies with Rick Moody, because he’s clearly got some demons of his own that even Demonology couldn’t exorcise. The most obvious being shame, but also its sisters: grief, lust, intoxication, ego, pride, and ignorance by choice. His writing is skillful, highly creative in structure, often funny (albeit in a dark way) and smart, although sometimes it’s a little too smart for its own good. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a dictionary close at hand when reading Moody. His vocabulary is expansive, (or should I say, sesquipedalian), so get used to words like Illyrian, efflorescent, ineluctable, caesurae, hermeneutics…the guy uses words like this all the time.
Rick Moody is a gifted writer, a bit of a show off, and clearly his own worst enemy. He’s a guy with a serious case of White Man’s Guilt. I’d love to see Moody, instead of encouraging us all to take up a veil and hide, to eschew those demons and use our gifts to work for good.