Thursday, April 3, 2008
Purple America - Rick Moody
The novel concerns a character named Dexter who is called Hex instead because that is the way he pronounced it as a baby. Hex is in his late 30's, a New Yorker, and works some vague job in proofreading or publishing. He has been called back to his mother's Connecticut estate to care for her in what appear to be her dying days. I bought this book at last year's Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago, and I read the first chapter while eating outside at a cafe. It is a very ambitious first chapter, consisting of one elaborately long sentence describing in detail all the sacrifices Hex has to make in order to care for his mother in her very ill state. It brought to my mind my mother's care of my grandmother over the last several years of her life when she was suffering from Alzheimer's, and it brings to my mind what I may in fact have to do one day if all does not go according to plan and my parents do fail to outlive me (an unlikely scenario at the moment). Later, I was sent a portion of a "WIP" novel (four pages, gasp!) by a person who told me her writing was better than mine, and in accordance with courtesy, I sent her my opinion on her work, and I asked her if she had ever read Purple America, because it appeared as if she had ripped it off terribly, when in fact, she had probably never seen the thing.
The fact is, the theme of this novel is caring for a sick parent, the way the theme for Dr. Faustus is genius, and the theme for Professor of Desire is sex & relationships, and the theme for A Long Way Down is suicide. And there are probably only so many things you can say about caring for a sick parent. It is a devastating experience. There is a loss of dignity. The world comes crashing down and your own life appears meaningless when held up against the light of the dying person's nearly-complete end.
But this is not a sad novel at all. If anything, it is a comic novel, and it takes place over the course of just a few days, featuring Hex's stepfather, who recently left her when her illness became too unbearable for him to care for any longer, and Jane Ingersoll, Hex's love interest, a classmate in high school and a denizen of the bar Hex takes his mother to eat at on the novel's final, endless night. Hex's stepfather works at a nuclear power plant that has just had some sort of meltdown, the cataclysmic catastrophe to offset the Mrs. dying. At one point, Hex tracks down his stepfather and (it should be noted that he drinks an awful lot throughout the novel), walking around with a six-pack, finds the house of a friend where he is briefly staying, and attempts to confront him and make him return to care for the mother. This is one of the best scenes of the novel, along with the scene in the restaurant, and the rest of the evening that never seems to end.
Purple America takes a little while to get into, but because the action is so compacted, the reader is drawn to continue on and finish quickly. It is a quick read, a relatively light read, but certainly one of the best novels I have read on its topic, and probably iconic for that matter. It is continually hilarious, though at times veering too much into the ridiculous. There are a few scenes that Moody might have been able to cut that slow the narrative down, particularly the sub-plot of the stepfather's troubles, which actually then, becomes more interesting than the mother's suffering.
Important to understand the novel though, is that while the mother suffers, she seems only to act meaner than previously. She is not a totally sympathetic character. In this way, Purple America is different from your typical stories of death and dying. While hardly essential, this is a good, strong, modern novel (published in 1994 or so, if I am not mistaken, and as the follow-up to The Ice Storm) that could be turned into an Academy Award winning film.
But one further note on Moody, a former student in Columbia's MFA writing program, a program I applied to a year ago because of his celebrity as an alum. He stays in relatively safe territory. So do most other writers earning their MFA and publishing on a national stage. If you are an ordinary person from an ordinary American family, you will probably find this book nice and enjoyable and entertaining. I did. But if you are not completely resigned to a life of ordinary, typically American events, you may find the novel to be exasperating and annoying. But that is unlikely. While no Doctor Faustus, Purple America is easily better than The Professor of Desire and A Long Way Down in terms of craft, execution, and originality. I say originality and I have claimed it is a very typical theme for a novel, but as I said before too, this is an iconic treatment of a typical theme and therefore, is original.