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A Moody Kind of Suburbia

Author Rick Moody's fans feel as if they know him--like he's a former neighbor, albeit a gloomy one.

February 21, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To be fair, it is not highly professional to tell a tired writer on a book tour that you think he has a nice face. Some people might think you are, how do you say, "coming on to them." But like a lot of Rick Moody's readers, I feel like I know him (every author's worst nightmare). He has become, for a generation of people in their 30s and 40s, a dark chronicler of American suburbia--mostly the East Coast variety, but it translates.

The 1997 movie version of Moody's 1994 novel, "The Ice Storm," directed by the supremely stylish Ang Lee, clinched this reputation and widened his audience to include a whole new subspecies of Moody fans. For example, a young woman with long blond hair in the audience at Moody's recent reading at the Skirball Cultural Center (as black- and leather-clad a crowd as you'd ever hope to see on a L.A. weeknight) turned a question about '70s costumes in "The Ice Storm" into a private conversation with "Rick" that went on for several nostalgic and sentimental moments while the rest of the 50 or 60 people present tried gamely to lean into it.

Moody was in town to promote his new short story collection "Demonology" (Little, Brown). A huge turnout at his reading the previous night, his first in L.A., at the Writers Guild, surprised even the author, who, like many New York literati--no matter how suave, well connected, or studio-fed--often feel disoriented anyway during the L.A. portion of their book tour. Moody's concern over having three drivers in two days was symptomatic. Asked by a guy in the back of the room about his story "Carousel" in "Demonology"--the only story in the collection set in L.A.--Moody confessed that he put the McDonald's where a gunman fires willy-nilly into a crowd in a parking lot on Pico Boulevard because it was the only street name in L.A. he knew.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 22, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor misidentified: An article about author Rick Moody in Wednesday's Southern California Living section misidentified an actor in the film "The Ice Storm." The correct actor was Kevin Kline.

One can't help but notice that a gold balloon in the shape of a star has floated to the ceiling above his head in a room otherwise devoid of decoration, except for a fake ficus. The balloon brings to mind childhood, which is significant because Moody's collection is bracketed by two stories full of grief about his sister, who died in 1995 at 37 while Moody was working on his novel "Purple America" (1997). The title story in "Demonology" was written two months after she died.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it," Moody says. "I can't stop. It's not that I think writing makes you feel better, it's just that that's what I do; I put words down. My sister's death changed me and the way I live. I'm less tolerant of frothy insubstantial fiction."

At the Skirball reading, Moody read "Boys," which has a poetic, experimental quality, each sentence beginning with the word "boys," as in "Boys enter the house in baseball gear," "Boys skip school," "Boys call each other retard, homo, geek," circling around the death of the boys' sister, whose dolls they buried in the backyard so many years ago. In fact, all of the book's stories gyrate between Moody's grief and his damped-down joy of writing, both of which, by the way, you can see on his face. He is capable of a pure grin when talking about things like italics, which he loves to use.

Moody lives on Fishers Island, N.Y., off Long Island, going into the city only to "see his lover" (an odd phrase for someone who seems to run from sentiment) and "get some culture." He's playful with his fiction, but there is also an element of tight control. Madison Bell, Moody tells me when I ask him if reviews of his books matter to him, once called him too cerebral in a New York Times Book Review. Did that bother him? The next book, "Purple America," was a kind of response. It was, in Moody's words, like a "great big suppurating wound" (hence the word "purple").

Moody winces a lot. He often uses the phrase "I'd rather have root canal than. . . ." He was briefly an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and he winces, remembering that time. He is wearing one of those short black leather jackets with bands on the shoulders, which, when he winces, almost touch his ears.

Moody, born in 1962 in New York, was raised in New Canaan, Conn., and went to Brown and then Columbia. His literary family tree seems to grow thusly: Nathaniel Hawthorne begat William Burroughs who begat Stanley Elkin who begat Robert Coover (author of many novels, among them "Ghost Town") who begat Rick Moody (Coover was in fact, a teacher of Moody's). Another branch has similar-tasting sap: Iggy Pop begat David Bowie who begat Moody.

But the strange creature that bubbles under the surface of Moody's fiction, certainly in his poetry and his critical writing, is William Burroughs. The rage in Moody's steaming accounts of suburbia, from "Garden State" (angry 20-year-olds frolic and complain in New Jersey) to "The Ice Storm" to "Purple America" frightens some readers, just as Burroughs frightened his. ("Hey," Moody said once to an interviewer, "negation is often the site of affirmation, right?").

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