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Voices in the Night : THE ICE STORM, By Rick Moody (Little, Brown: $19.95; 288 pp.)

August 07, 1994|Ellen Akins | Ellen Akins is the author of "Public Life."

This is not so much a novel as an excavation--of that nearly but not quite extinct entity the nuclear family as it was in those dark ages, the 1970s. The argot, the foibles, the fads and the artifacts: They're all here, meticulously catalogued and historically framed with discussions of the design, politics and groping psychology of the period. In the midst of this exactingly reconstructed rubble we find the Hoods, a family of four. Because the Hoods live in the suburbs--in "the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs"--we may be sure there's plenty to uncover, all manner of unsuspected subterranean doings and undoings. And in fact, the Hoods are having quite a day, which is to say, night.

Informed by insights from Masters & Johnson and "I'm Okay, You're Okay" and Marvel Comics and Creem, these four are playing out the defining act of their family drama--and that they're each doing their parts separately says a lot about what's happening to them. Because of the extended paraphrases and quotations and references that bolster and bracket each character's point of view, the Hoods certainly seem to be emblematic of their time, which makes their emotional isolation, the private and solitary nature of their disintegration, all the more poignant, as if they're cut off even from the sense--a faint comfort--that their problems are as broadly human as they are specific to a particular person, place and date.

It's 1973, the day after Thanksgiving, the place is New Canaan, Conn., and "So let me dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up," the book begins. The narrator, who promises to reveal his part in all this later, is a tricky one from the start, a singular, sentient being who tells his story from several points of view, no more than one of which he could possibly know in such interior detail. The perspectives thus imagined are the mother's and father's (Elena and Ben), the children's (Paul, 16, and Wendy, 14), and briefly the neighbor boy, Mike's. First of all, Ben: He's waiting in the neighbor's guest room for his mistress, the neighbor's wife, who seems to have eluded him for the moment. While searching for her, he surprises his daughter and Mike in the basement, with their pants down. And so we are set upon the crisscrossing paths of the night, the fumblings and experiments, confessions and discoveries that lead to a grim dawn in which this family's present and future crystallize in the frozen devastation of an ice storm.

Virtually all of these paths take us through the sexual muddlings and imaginings of the family members, from Wendy's rather odd manipulations of the neighbor boys to Paul's wistful attempt to seduce a schoolmate to their parents' complicated spouse swapping at something called a "key party." Everyone's confused to begin with and, caught overnight in the weather and their various liaisons, much more confused by the end. What's become clear, though, is that this misalliance of fate, their family, is finally falling apart. When a calamity--senseless, the narrator concedes--treats the Hoods and their neighbors to "the spectacle of a lost future," we're told, "it brought them together and it drove them apart but maybe this parting was inevitable anyway," and the same could be said for the Hood family itself.

Though split in perspective among the characters, this story is largely uniform in style, rendered in short sentences, many of them not really sentences but bright staccato beats that hammer home a point or ring a few changes on it or take it one step further. This uniformity draws things together and makes sense if one person is finally responsible for mapping the moments of all the others, but it also occasionally gives the lie to these people's supposed thoughts, especially those of the more-than-precocious Wendy. Paul, however, always rings perfectly true, stuck in adolescence and testing its edges, a boy-man with remarkable insights and remarkable lapses, and the rich, murky wonder of his passages stands out all along as a clue to the source and meaning of the story. And if one clear voice emerges from this dark night of the family, there's hope--as well another indication that what's lurking under the calm surface of the suburbs is great raw material for the novelist.

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