The Four Fingers of Death
Little, Brown: 730 pp., $25.99
Rick Moody grew up on a nutritious diet of Pynchon, Vonnegut (to whom this book is dedicated), Roth and Updike, some Melville and Hawthorne for New England-style moralizing, a pinch of Carlos Castaneda for spice and a good helping of the Bible (comfort food, the cassava of Western culture). He has described — in four previous novels, two story collections, a collection of novellas and a memoir — exactly what it might be like to grow up on planet Earth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: broken promises, broken relationships, great hopes for technology and the quickening devastation of beauty.
We know his style. Fast, clever. Characters matter less than story. We are all products of our time, chained to it, but he is too much a product of his time (don't preach, less is more) to actually tell us what to do, or get hysterical about love, or sentimental about the past, a past, any past. Writers who shed good light on the nature of the chains give us a leg up toward freedom. After all, we have to imagine our future before we can create it.
Moody is cynical, in a cowboy sort of way. You rounded up the cattle, moved to the next landscape. He is cinematic; an imagination fed by images is different than one fed by stories. He writes like a true autodidact who believes enough in his own instincts not to spend too much time on research. Moody is not compulsive about details. Description is not what weighs down this 730-page, root-bound novel.
So the future looks a little grim. Montese Crandall sells baseball cards at a flea market sometime in the 21st century, specializing in cards featuring players with robotically enhanced limbs. (It is like Moody to present us with a world in which the first thing to go is the integrity of baseball. Ouch, right in the gonads.) Monty writes one-sentence novels pared to perfection. ("Go get some eggs, you dwarf.")
Monty may write short but talks long: "[B]efore beginning," he tells those at a reading, "I think we need to observe a silence for a couple of minutes, so that you can hear my sentences arising from out of a doomed, hushed, forlorn historical moment, and together we remember how language replies always to the nothingness, how the utterance is a pure thing, a pure, uh, musical production, faced with, you know, the thundercloud of human failure sweeping down from the mountains and over the desert."
So this is Moody uncorked, slyly going back to the wordy, toothsome, 19th century novel, with a science-fiction twist.
Monty's wife is dying from an infection that requires a lung transplant. He needs money to pay her medical bills (and to feed her gambling habit — futures betting on violent conflicts around the world). When a shadowy guy by the name of D. Tyrannosaurus mentions the big bucks he makes writing novelizations, Monty challenges him to a game of chess, winner takes novelization rights to the film "The Four Fingers of Death."
And we're off, on a mission to Mars in a $400-billion soda can, the spaceship Geronimo, with Col. Jed Richards, circa 2025. There's the promise of a new start for humanity, but as the astronauts near the Red Planet, things start to go wrong. Could be interplanetary disinhibitory syndrome — that would explain the "Brokeback Mountain" moment between Capt. Jim Rose and Col. Richards and the violent sexual assault on a female astronaut on another ship, but it could also be a creepy bacterium. "[H]ere in the arctic desert of Mars," the colonel writes to his estranged wife back on Earth, "feelings run out into the empty canvas. They evaporate like water vapor, or carbon dioxide, which, here, goes straight from a solid to a gas. Nothing is explicable. Murderous rage is as common as dark matter."
That rage causes one team member to slice three fingers off the colonel's hand (two of the digits are found and reattached). The mission continues downhill, Capt. Rose is "unselfed" in the desert, a baby is born (the first American citizen born on Mars). NASA decides to bring back what's left of the mission, but there is the problem of the bacterium. The mission is aborted on its reentry to Earth's atmosphere. The colonel's arm is separated in the wreckage, four fingers and all, and begins its lonely crawl across the Southwestern desert toward a humanity increasingly unworthy of the name, killing hapless victims in its path.
NASA, aware of the missing arm and four fingers of death, hires Korean stem cell researcher Woo Lee Koo to find the hand and eliminate the bacterium, which will lodge in his hapless son (whose greatest idea is starting a company that manufactures "designer selves").
Right around this point (at the 500-page landmark or so), it appears possible that Moody, like a jazz musician, is having more fun than his audience. He's hopping along, cliché to cliché, characters rounded out just enough to support the forward movement of the story. Monty, who's been Moody's stand-in since the get-go, steps back in in the 300s to say that the reader is actually getting four volumes for the price of one — the whole enchilada, Monty's own unforgettable story, the story of the Mars mission and the story of the bacterium, which makes a reader, as consumer, feel a little better.
But in the end, Moody drags the remnants of his culture like so many balls and chains across the landscape of the known. He falls to Earth. The book smolders, shudders and goes out. The End.
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times