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The Black Veil: A Memoir with
Playfully and at times
painfully self-aware, Rick Moody flees from conventional storytelling as if from the West
Nile virus or Enron stock. His relentlessly clever stories and novels have always taken
the path of greatest resistance. Overripe highbrow prose is studded with slangy
pop-culture references and italicized subtextual asides. Moodys style found its
keenest expression in The Ice Storm, his celebrated
1994 novel (later adapted into a film by Ang Lee) that skewered middle-class privilege and shallow
hedonism in a 1970s Connecticut suburb. Typical of the authors wicked irony was a
chapter that dissected a cocktail party by utilizing psychobabble terminology culled from
the eras self-help bestsellers. Not surprisingly, Moodys latest book, The Black Veil, is subtitled A Memoir with
Digressions. While it marks his first extended foray into autobiographical terrain,
the eccentric tone and recondite wordplay will be familiar both to fans and detractors of
his earlier work.
The central narrative of The Black Veil concerns the fallout from an unexplained panic event that came to afflict Moody on Christmas Day some sixteen years ago while visiting his mother. He was a 24-year-old graduate of Brown University, working an unfulfilling job as a manuscript reader for a New York publisher. Moodys yuletide discombobulation (There was no trauma, no Hollywood origin for this sensation I had, except things people went through every day) turns out to be only the tip of the meltdown. Anxieties are soon crowding his thoughts like truckloads at a landfill. He is haunted by dark fears of being assaulted and violently raped. Therapy and antidepressants bring no relief. Problems with alcohol escalate. His girlfriend checks herself into a drug rehab facility. Moody winds up in a psychiatric hospital.
Theres little that ultimately distinguishes Moodys experiences from countless trendy memoirs about depression and addiction. One longs for the quiet clarity and eloquence of, say, William Styrons Darkness Visible. Instead, The Black Veil often deteriorates into a hyperventilating melodrama starring Moody as the lonely villain in a monster movie, a suzerain of reclusion, drinking, loathing myself... The promised digressions seem all too arbitrary and lack Moodys usually sharp thematic cohesion. A four-page analysis of Elton Johns album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, for example, doesnt suggest Lester Bangs as much as Patrick Batemans intentionally banal rock criticism in Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho.
A second, more interesting storytold in alternating chaptersis Moodys genealogical research into an eighteenth century Puritan minister from Maine named Joseph Handkerchief Moody. Known primarily as a footnote to American literary history, Handkerchief Moody was cited by Nathaniel Hawthorne as an inspiration of sorts for his classic 1836 short story, The Ministers Black Veil. (Hawthornes tale is handily if rather pretentiously included as an appendix to The Black Veil.) Not yet ten years old in 1708, Handkerchief Moody accidentally shot and killed an adolescent playmate. Years later, he took to wearing a handkerchief across his face as a symbol of his guilt and shame. Hawthornes fictional Parson Hooper similarly wears a veil, but the short story adds further layers of mystery and metaphor by purposely never revealing the reason behind the ministers peculiar behavior.
The Black Veil springs fitfully to life when Rick Moody and his father travel the backroads of New England in their quest for family history and Handkerchief Moodys legacy. The authors voice, so inexplicably phony and off-putting for much of the book, strikes the perfect elegiac note in describing the Maine landscape settled by his forebears:
The house my father was born in, in Waterville, the ramshackle farm my grandmothers family had owned in Millbridge, a pestilence of blackflies, steamers on the harbor at low tide, everywhere in these Maine scenes disrepair, enclosures in fog, as if it were a function of Maine that it existed only in memory.
Admirably ambitious but fatally unfocused, The Black Veil
is best seen as a misstep by a talented writer. Even readers who have enjoyed Moodys
work in the past are advised to get out their handkerchiefs and wave goodbye to this one.
- Bob Wake