`Purple America' -- Mothers And Sons

April 27, 1997|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Purple America," by Rick Moody. Little, Brown and Company. 1997. 298 pages.

Rick Moody's new novel, "Purple America," opens in the voice of a Yankee preacher delivering a sermon: "Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die." It ends with a plainspoken letter that is as swooningly romantic as a page in "The English Patient": "I want to spend time with you...I want a daughter or a son. Will you be my partner in all these crimes?"

In the 290-plus intervening pages, it is a tough, funny, gorgeously detailed domestic thriller that shares with contemporary classics such as Coetzee's "Life and Times of Michael K" and Holleran's "The Beauty of Men" its harrowing evocation of the fierce bond that holds mothers and sons together in a time of crisis.

This is Moody's fourth book, and it leapfrogs past his last great work, the novella "The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven," by lingering on scenes of emotional purity. "Purple America" is the stuff of classical tragedy, told in insistent, laser-bright prose. Reading it is a transfiguring experience; if you have a mother, and a heart, you will cry.

The book takes place on one Connecticut night in the life of Hex Raitliffe, 38-year-old screw-up son of rich Billie Raitliffe, who is dying a lingering death and has just been abandoned by her second husband. Hex must confront his mother's mortality and his own, and in the process make sense of a tragic family history.

In the middle of the book, after Billie has asked her son to help her die with dignity, there is a thrilling set-piece chapter that any writer would kill to have written. This is the kind of chapter that makes a writer's career.

It's a kaleidoscopic evocation of the moment when Hex's introduction to the Sixties counterculture drug scene intersects with his mother's realization that her body is rebelling against her. Here's how it ends: "...and her smile was askew, as she clutched at the banister ... and then she fell again and he watched it all in the tranquility of intoxication ... her legs curling under her, her legs collapsing, her tennis skirt parachuting ... all things going out from under her as she fell ... boy, it was really funny, all things falling, all things flying. And when she came to, she was unable to stand on her own."

There are too many sweet, desolate, indelible lines of dialogue and introspection to keep track of, but I'll share my favorite: Hex, getting romantic with a girl he'd been crazy for in high school, Jane Ingersoll, who's one of the most startlingly fresh female characters in recent fiction, whispers in a soft stutter, "K-k-k-kissing, you know, is like a renunciation of d-d-devouring."

Although I found a subplot about atomic meltdown (yes, atomic meltdown) a little bit tired, and though sometimes Moody's prose wore me down (there are so many italicized passages that I found myself reaching for a computer mouse, as if these words or phrases were hypertext links I could click on to see a picture or hear a sound), "Purple America" hurt me the way few novels do.

Ben Neihart published his first novel, "Hey, Joe," this year, after completing a master's program in writing at Johns Hopkins and in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He contributes to literary magazines, including the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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