book Purple America

reviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 15 ~ August, 1998

Rick Moody’s latest novel, Purple America, is the story of a stuttering son, Hex Raitliffe, who is home to care for his mother, a long sick invalid, after she is abandoned by his stepfather. Over the course of a single weekend Hex sees his good intentions, his love for his mother, inhibited by her desire to die from his love of alcohol. His mother has decided that her life is now over, complete, and only a burden to those that she loves. She wants Hex to kill her. The incredible sense of unease and psychological pleasure and displeasure is monumental.

Moody’s rhapsodic, surging dialogue, the ins and outs of speech with thoughts, with could-have-been-saids with weren’t-saids, adds a third dimension to the character’s interactions. The son has a stuttering problem, adding pause to his lines. The mother has a muscular disorder making nearly any speech impossible. So how do they exchange so many lines of dialogue? Are these thoughts or actual speech?

-What business is it of yours? …Her words like a mush, a consommé of talk. -Can’t you-

-W-w-what? Hex shoves one of his chairs from the breakfast table up next to her. -Ma? If we’re g-g-going to… You’d better start by trying to p-p-

-I don’t ask you …. about…

-Pronounce your words…

-Dunwannapulllshhhhh, somewhat plausibly. The words are onomatopoetic. Perhaps soundalike quality is enough to convey sense.

This hey-what’s-really-going-on-here? dimension at once places you deeper into the story and forces you outside of it.

Through the thoughts and memories of Hex, his mother, stepfather, and Hex’s girlfriend from elementary school, we see a portrait of the family at its best and worst: the love, naiveté, and optimism of Hex’s father (when he was alive) and mother years before, amid the reality of his mother’s debilitating disease and the ramifications of Hex’s alcoholism. Moody uses their voices to juxtapose the way the characters thought their lives would turn out with how they actually did. The voices give us detailed introspections, the mother longs to relive a moment from Hex’s childhood or the stepfather reveals that he never faced the reality of his wife’s disease, and we love the characters for knowing them so well. Their damning present frustrates us, but we trust Moody and ultimately empathize with the feelings and situations of his characters. The joy of the past, of a young family, interweaves with the pain of the present one. The joy and the pain, the past and the present, each is a part of the other.

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Camille Renshaw is from Nashville, TN, where she also completed her graduate work in English at Vanderbilt University. An avid hiker, she had just returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail when her first poems in Pif Magazine were published. Camille later became managing editor of Pif Magazine.