If Rick Moody were an innkeeper instead of a story writer, his guests would admire the striking decor of the rooms but be less pleased, perhaps, at finding Moody lying in the bed.
The title novella and many of the stories in "The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven" have both a surface and an expressive brilliance, purposefully undermined and distressed in various up-to-date literary ways. There is a cold, comic touch of Donald Barthelme in the obsessive journal of a man who tapes his wife's telephone calls; a suggestion of Woody Allen's hyper-rational schlemiel in the monologue of a student who thinks the Book of Revelations is about himself, and something of the heavy-metal urban chaos of William Vollman in a third piece--the novella--about drug-wasted lives in New York's hell zones.
The echoes do not diminish Moody's considerable accomplishments. All original music is a pathway through echoes. The fact that they come from so many directions, though, suggests the weakness. Along with the energy and stylistic dazzle, there seems to be a lack of authorial conviction, or perhaps necessity.
True, the stories have themes in common: in some, a scary or ironic portrait of different aspects of contemporary dehumanization; in others, a kind of baleful romance of the big city. But after constructing a device of considerable stylistic force and ingenuity, Moody will let it drop or taper off or disintegrate. It is not a matter of ratcheting up a story an additional notch by turning on it, like the straw dummy in Britain's Guy Fawkes pageant who is built and adorned for the purpose of being exploded. It seems to be a question, rather, of an author who, not quite able either to find or lose himself in his work, casts it aside and steps into its place.
Sometimes the substitution is all but explicit. "A Good Story" begins with Moody discussing it as he tells it, as if teaching a fiction course. This is conditionally fine--there are all kinds of ways to start a story--and it adds a note of tension, particularly since the story itself seems to be taking shape.
A young lawyer of no particular qualities is summoned to the rural estate of his wealthy father to help him deal with something he is too old to handle alone: the disposal of a sick horse. There is a skillful buildup toward what promises to be a scene of confrontation and resolution between the generations. Instead, Moody pulls out with a sudden pat phrase--"it appears that killing things is the job of men"--and follows it with an utterly derailing phrase: " . . . and then we go on to the last vocation, that transmission of the ache of these encounters, the ache, viz. the construction of good stories." We've been had. There is no good story, only Moody lying in our bed.
In the strongest parts of the collection, Moody's impingement upon his work is less direct. It comes, in fact, as an abandonment, a trailing off. "The Preliminary Notes" starts as a comically savage self-portrait of a technological control freak. Sensing his wife's growing estrangement, he begins an elaborate phone-tapping ritual. His talk is all about the equipment and recording methods; he speaks of listening to the tapes "when I had quality time--usually in the evenings, with a glass of wine." A touch of poignancy is suggested along with the savagery, but in the end both fade out inconclusively.
"The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner" also starts off terrifically. A failing college student, shunned by a woman he is obsessed with, stays up all night to scrawl an overdue paper for his religion class. With mad bravura, he interprets St. John's Apocalypse in terms of everything that is happening to him. It is clever and often funny, but the character never comes into focus.
The title novella, which follows several drug-crippled lives through a New York world of porno shops, transvestite pickups and S&M; clubs, is written in a brilliant nightmarish style. There is a particularly powerful account of a lesbian trio whose tough-talking leader, a black call girl, is shockingly betrayed by her two white upper-middle-class partners. Then, at the end, the genuine pity and terror that Moody evokes melt away in one unbelievable phrase: "None of us seemed to know the nature of the coincidences that bound us together, as I know now," the narrator says, "or that junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven."
Would O. Henry have blushed? Probably not. But we know that Moody is not O. Henry, and he knows we know it. He has dropped out of his story, but not to disappear. He is like a magician who stops midway through the trick, and out of his hat produces something we need much less than a rabbit: Himself.