No Words Wasted Sale

Wednesday, May 1st, 2002


The Black Veil

by Rick Moody

The Digger

A review by Sven Birkerts

Rick Moody is an architect and a builder, a maker of compound-complex sentences that digress and subordinate, and at their best demonstrate as persuasively as any diagram the implicit complexity not just of thought, but of the invariably clotted-up inner life. He is also a compulsively burrowing writer, an excavator driven to push downward past where weekend spelunkers tire, even as he knows — and argues — that there is no place of arrival.

In the opening section of his memoir, The Black Veil, he more or less announces the terms of the search, preempting any expectations of neatness or closure: "Readers in search of a tidy, well-organized life in these pages, a life of kisses bestowed or of novels written, may be surprised. My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative; or, the process of this work is obsessive and like all obsessions is protean, beginning with the burden of consciousness, moving through the narrative evocation of that sensation, shame, remorse, guilt, regret, into the story of a particular search for the original image of the veil in my life."

This veil, an anagram of "evil" and "live," refers to the Moody family's ancestral connection to one "Handkerchief" Moody, who may have been the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Reverend Hooper, protagonist of the story "The Minister's Black Veil," and one of the most enigmatic figures in our literature — the man who, in a moment of dark recognition of human guilt (Original Sin, if you will) one day donned a black veil (as Moody himself will for a brief leg of his downward trajectory) and never again removed it, casting a pall over life in his town of Milford and confirming the universal susceptibility to suggestions of dark and evil.

Moody works the image of the veil in literal and figurative ways. Literally, creating part of the structural armature of his memoir, he recounts episodes and reflections from a five-day trip through New Hampshire and Maine that he took with his father when in his mid-twenties, the object being to track the spoor of the far-flung Moody clan and to locate evidence of Handkerchief Moody. I could search and search and possibly find a compressed passage to cite here, but it wouldn't really be Moody, and it wouldn't get at the yarn-untangling effect of the narrative. Better this: "I had worked hard to connect my father and my grandfather and all their stories of Maine to the Maine of Handkerchief Moody, sort of the way C.G. Jung was always trying to connect the Gnostics to the Alchemists, but the two would not meet, not until I started trying to tease out a narrative of my grandfather's father, one Hiram Clement Moody, for whom my grandfather was named, for whom my father was named, for whom I named myself, though I don't use my real name…" But no, Moody is just getting started and this must suffice.

The larger part of the saga takes the associations of the veil — the above-named shame, remorse, guilt and regret — and uses these as autobiographical prompts. This is the story of obsession, of coming of age in the grip of an unshakable, if obscure, sense of dread, a severely alienating compulsion — so in key with the dread-filled eighties — toward drugs, drink, destructive relationships, a headlong rush toward rock bottom that eventually lands the author in a New York psychiatric hospital. My hope is that by truncating the previous quotation I have earned myself the right — the pleasure — to offer the following sentence in full, for it is here we get after the repeated downward lunges the moment of touch down: "And that was how I found myself that evening in a van being driven by a taciturn guy whose job it was to drive junkies and alcoholics to various addresses, and it was raining, and the Mets, whose best pitcher was also about to check himself into a rehabilitation center, were losing a game on the radio, and this taciturn driver, who didn't want to hear any junkie bullshit, was taking me somewhere, but didn't really tell me where, or perhaps there was only an address for him, past this dilapidated shopping center, along this stretch of the interstate, to Hollis, Queens, and soon I was sitting in the admitting room, at dusk, on a Sunday, in July, and I was being asked if I knew who the president of the United States was, and if I was capable of doing the nines table, and what brought me to the hospital."

The Black Veil offers the Jamesian "figure in the carpet" glimpsed from the verso, all rough weave and stitches. Moody makes almost no mention of the attainments of his life — there is almost nothing about the drive toward writing, the literary obsession that has made him something of a generational prodigy, nothing really but the riveting epileptic convulsions of a soul in extremis, a life he views as blackened at its very root by "brutality, bloodthirstiness, and murder" — not just his, or his family's, either, but — as he is at pains to tell us in the closing lines of the book — ours as well.

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