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Rick Moody's 'Purple America'

By Todd Meigs

AUGUST 31, 1998:  One of the unforeseen results of the post-World War II economic boom, and the consequent explosion of the suburban lifestyle, was the development of a literature that dealt almost exclusively with the new world of raised ranches, prep schools and comfortable amounts of money. Talented and popular writers like John Updike, J.D. Salinger and John Cheever (among many others) wrote excellent tales of suburban life, documenting their hopes and dreams in this era of unprecedented prosperity. However, as time rolled on and the optimism of the 1950s gave way to the freneticism of the 1990s, the middle class has been searching for a new voice to represent their new lifestyles. With Purple America, Rick Moody steps confidently into the large shoes left him by his predecessors, faithfully continuing the ongoing saga of suburbia.

Rick Moody has a talent for this line of work. Growing up in New England and attending Brown University certainly has given him plenty of insight into the prep-school personality. His last novel, The Ice Storm, was an excellent study of suburban boredom and adultery that explored the evolution of modern middle-class moralities. But with Purple America, Moody sets his sights a bit higher, giving us a book that hopes to expose the dark side of the American Dream.

The book opens thus: Hex Raitliffe--an alcoholic suffering from a weak ego and a stutter--returns to his parents' Connecticut home to find his family falling apart. His mother, Billie, is slowly dying from a number of ailments that have left her wheelchair-bound and subservient to medications. She's left virtually helpless, a condition her husband Lou, Hex's stepfather, can't take anymore after 25 years of watching her fade away. Recently bumped from his job at the local nuclear power plant, Lou abandons her in the hopes of enjoying a quiet retirement in Vermont. As a result, Billie turns to thoughts of suicide. She called Hex home to help kill her, it turns out, but instead she sets in motion a series of mishaps and arguments that shake the foundation of their lives. All this takes place during the course of a single day ("so the reader has nowhere to escape," Moody says), during which the Raitliffe family deals not only with their personal problems but also a nuclear power plant leak, car explosions, drug overdoses, sudden appearances by ex-lovers and a night of complete insomnia.

In Moody's America, middle-class dreams have dimmed from their glorious heyday (revealed here in touching, "Wonder Years"-style flashbacks) into a dimly resigned failure. Hex once dreamed the large dreams of a young Republican, fantasizing of a world where hard work spells success and a large loving family awaits everyone. Instead, he finds himself nurturing a quietly desperate complacency. Moody accurately and with sympathy untangles Hex's web of neuroses to reveal the child/man underneath. All of the characters are treated with a similar understanding of the inner desires that drive them to act the way they do, a refreshing respite from the relentless cynicism of many modern novelists.

In a way, the whole book is about the basic desire to communicate and the many ways in which that urge can be thwarted. Words can be elusive, and many of the conflicts in the book stem from this failure to communicate; it's a theme reflected in the book's format, with each chapter being told by a different character. To make matters worse, Hex stutters; Billie can only talk with the help of a synthesized voice, and Lou communicates best through his letters. Strangely moving, this circus of misapprehension draws you into the role of the therapist, wishing you could lock the Raitliffe family into a room and help them work out their problems together.

In the end, and despite a weak ending, Purple America succeeds on many levels. Moody has managed to revitalize the suburban novel, to comment intelligently on the state of America circa 1998, to symbolize the difficulties of communication as well as to spin an entertaining yarn. It's an impressive continuation of what no doubt will be a long, successful career in letters. (Little Brown, paper, $13.95)

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