Once upon a time, Rick Moody was just another face in the crowd. And then lightning struck and left him scorched. The lightning was a review in 2002 by Dale Peck in the New Republic, identifying Moody as "the worst writer of his generation."
"The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody's prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the Korean writing means something, but I am not convinced that Moody's books are about anything at all."
The unreadable book was Moody's novel "The Minister's Black Veil," and though Peck had been reading the whole of Moody's work, none of it redeemed him from the sentence of being the worst.
I have good news and bad news about Moody's latest book, a collection of three novellas titled "Right Livelihoods." First, the good news. Moody is not the worst, and there is far more depressing prose fiction than his issuing from the presses daily. Moody is a born dreamer whose imagination is so effervescent that you sometimes want him to chill out. What did Ben Jonson say about Shakespeare: "Sufflaminandus erat -- that sometime it was necessary he should be stop'd?" Well, the same of Moody.
And now for the bad news. His writing may carry a punch, but now and then you want to punch it back. Between moments of gemlike lucidity, Rick Moody can be clear as, well, a Korean menu.
"Right Livelihoods" puts its best foot forward at the beginning with a story, "The Omega Force," that does a convincing a job of constructing Alzheimer's from within and cunningly connects up senility to homeland security. A retired doctor (of public policy) and bureaucrat, Dr. Jamie Van Deusen, has taken to wandering about his retirement island and falling asleep on the porches of his neighbors.
Nobody seems much to care: the island is an aviary for golden agers and the geezerati nod off as easily as cats in the sun. As Dr. Van Deusen tells us, "Memory is an inconsistent retrieval system, as anyone will tell you. It's shot through with imprecisions. Occasionally, things happen that are beyond our ken, beyond our enfeebled understanding." Such as how he wound up on a particular porch, taking a nap.
Between meanders, Van Deusen is reading a spy thriller titled "Omega Force: Code White," a book whose cover "pictured a strapping young man leaping from an amphibious landing vehicle while brandishing a rather alarming handgun . . . . " Not only can't he put the book down, he has become entangled in its fantasy of America in distress -- that terrorist groups are beginning to gather on the island itself for an assault on the American heartland.
When a local fisherman reports that a strange plane has landed at the local airstrip and that a group of "dark complected" men got out to look around, Van Deusen is certain that the island, just off the northern shore of Long Island, is the epicenter of an elaborate conspiracy.
Rick Moody is a practiced riff artist who has been schooled in jazz and jam-band rock and needs little excuse to shift registers and head off somewhere else. In "The Omega Force" he rips off some elegant little phrases about the "Dance of the Stick," one of the sidelights of Van Deusen's dotage that he performs on the beach with any desiccated, salty stick that washes up on the shore.
The gyrating seaside dance is one of the story's epiphanies, as Van Deusen's dementia contains elements of exaltation and he becomes a Baryshnikov of autumnal sensuality.
This is where Moody gets it right, in these quick asides where he can embroider around a simple chord structure. The Dance of the Stick sets up the long rolling cadenza about aliens who have infiltrated the island and are planning to release "airborne zoonotic diseases, like West Nile, hantavirus, Ebola, or Rift Valley fever" into the homeland environment.
In his dementia, Van Deusen exquisitely recreates the mentality of paramilitary potboiler fiction and right-wing talk radio while going off his rocker.
The volume's other two novellas: "K&K" and "The Albertine Notes" are a decided falling off. In "K&K," one Ellie Knight-Cameron, a zaftig and romantically-challenged office manager for the insurance firm of K&K -- Kolodny & Kolodny -- starts finding strange notes in the firm's suggestion box: "If they're going to close lanes on the parkway, they ought to actually repair the goddamned road."
Their hostility escalates. Ellie's simultaneous searches for the source of the notes and a cure for her lovelessness leave her as wacked out as Dr. Van Deusen but not nearly as rewarding to meet. As her desperation deepens, the reader discovers the nasty truth about her: she isn't that much fun to be around.
"The Albertine Notes" is an exercise in post-nuclear sci-fi in which a drug lord has cornered the Manhattan market in a drug named Albertine that induces vivid memories -- of the future.
It's great for gamblers. Manhattan itself has been partly vaporized by some terrible explosion that makes 9/1 1 look like a demolition derby, and characters de-materialize in mid conversation as though they were merely dreams and their dreamer has moved on. People die of memories. It is a sort of open structure that gives play to Moody's improvisational zeal, stringing together events that could or could not be connected because who knows anything about time travel in dreams?
From page to page it all gets very New Yorky, punkish, GenX, hypergrunge, and bombed out. If your aim is to solve the Rick Moody puzzle or just enjoy a good story, "The Albertine Notes" is not your cup of cyberpunk. As his lead character, a writer, tells us: "What's memory? Memory's the groove. It's the all-stars laying down their groove, and its you dancing, chasing the desperations of the heart, chasing something that is so gone, so ephemeral you know it only by its traces, how a certain plucked guitar string summons the thundering centuries, how a taste of fresh cherries calls up the indolent romancers on antebellum porches, all those stories of the past rolling around in you." Take it or leave it, but that's the Moody blues for you.
Mark Shechner is a University at Buffalo professor of English.
By Rick Moody
Little Brown, 223 pages, $23.99.