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Dowsed
Ricky Moody has a laugh
BY RICHARD C. WALLS
The Diviners
By Rick Moody. Little, Brown, 567 pages, $29.95


Rick Moody, past master of tales of suburban alienation (Garden State, The Ice Storm), has made an ambitious leap into another genre ó a sprawling, overstuffed satiric novel centered on the efforts of various incompetents to get made a television mini-series called The Diviners. Itís an epic concept that starts with the Mongol hordes and ends with the founding of Las Vegas, and itís held together, dubiously, by the theme of divining, or dowsing, the old practice of finding water with a crooked stick. Moody ó whose prose style is itself alienated, if not post-traumatic, in its insistence on atomizing his subjects while retaining a lofty distance ó milks the grand stupidity of the idea for all itís worth. Most of the characters in the book (and there are a couple dozen) are stupid, delusional, or foolish to the point of being dangerous to themselves, and this is both a pleasure and a problem, a source of humor but also tedium. Moody has a knack for the condescending insight into dumb behavior, but how long can you get a kick out of feeling superior to other people?

The mini-series is being developed by Vanessa Meandro as a first foray into commercial fare by her indie film company, Means of Production. Vanessa is also developing a project about Otis Redding called Try a Little Tenderness in which "The third act will answer the question of who had Otis Redding eliminated. . . . Vanessa wants it to be terrorists, for some reason, while [her assistant] Madison and the writer are leaning towards Cubans, in revenge for the Bay of Pigs." So weíre in a loony world where everything is ridiculous and nothing is at stake.

The story is set during the long-contested Gore/Bush post-election, for no apparent reason other than to give it a properly absurdist backdrop. The plot complicates itself while we wait for its various threads to connect; it helps that the characters are distinctive if a bit clichéíd. Vanessa is obese, a self-centered devourer of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a terror to her staff. Action-movie star Thaddeus Griffith is vain and insecure with an unlikely intellectual interior life he seems to have borrowed from the author. Ranjeet, the Indian savant whoís helping to develop the script, is both excessively polite and impossibly arrogant. Vanessaís mother, Rosa, is a crackpot in the hallucinatory stages of alcoholism.

Whatís more, though Moody seems to have written the novel in a mood of expansively curdled humor, he canít help injecting the well-delineated howl of despair. Tucked away among the secondary characters, for example, is the unfunny Reverend Duffy, though you might take his angst as a spoof of Updikean religious turmoil. Contemplating an upcoming sermon fills him with uncharitable feelings toward some of his flock: "It nauseates the Reverend Duffy, this type of scriptural passage, it depresses him, but at the end of the church calendar, it is unavoidable. The people who incline toward this kind of bunk, or the Book of Revelation, are the ones with borderline personality disorder or a deluxe helping of delusional narcissism. They need clinical care."

What does it all mean? Probably not much. Which could explain why Moody leaves so many of the storyís threads dangling. You donít care whether the mini-series gets made, or whether one of the characters murdered someone ó you just move from one scathing set piece to another, enjoying the clever prose. Or not.


Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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