Moody comes up one finger short

"The Four Fingers of Death," by Rick Moody. Little, Brown, $25.99

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Novels live and die by inspiration, so R.I.P., "The Four Fingers of Death," Rick Moody's latest foray into fiction.

The spark of creativity that set this novel into turgid motion was the 1963 cheap horror film "The Crawling Hand." Some of you might remember it from the drive-in. For the millions who don't, the premise is that the severed arm of an astronaut returns to Earth and kills people.

Oh, there's plenty of life among the author's 725 pages, all kinds. A talking chimp, deadly Martian bacteria, the arm with a mind of its own, a Korean DNA scientist and a novelist, to name but a few of the denizens of Mr. Moody's 2025 crumbling America.

Mr. Moody's giddy venture is kicked off by Montese Crandall, the author's concept of the novelist of the future, whose project is to "novelize" the film. That's the first joke. In 2025, books are one sentence long, as in "Go get some eggs, you dwarf," one of Crandall's masterpieces.

This new novel though, is thousands of sentences, a parody of those "obsolete" 19th-century British authors who were paid by the word. Occasionally a sentence runs for more than five pages without a period in sight.

Many of them surely indicate a complete negation of cerebral activity or perhaps interplanetary disinhibitory disorder.

Mr. Moody, one of the leading men of contemporary American fiction, can't get very far without italics, either a literary affectation or a sign of his heightened emotional sensitivity.

Whatever, it's annoying.

The other joke is that the missing finger is the middle one, the one Mr. Moody is raising toward today's literary establishment. (This isn't the first time. As head judge of the National Book Award fiction nominations in 2002, he led a rejection of the big publishers' conventional choices in favor of obscure novelists.)

His new book, chockablock with the novelist's stylistic mastery, is a parody of science fiction with its dystopian pessimism and contemporary meta fiction with its personal obsessions. (Told you it was annoying.)

The grim endings of his characters, from the crews of a mission to Mars where the fingers and later the arm are detached from its crazed owner to the maudlin demise of Montese's invalid wife in the bleak wastes of global-warmed over America are full of soap-opera sentimentality. There's not an honest note in the whole book.

In Mr. Moody's defense, "The Four Fingers of Death" is often hilarious. His cynical view on where the country is headed in 15 years -- a bankrupted "NAFTA" territory facing "Sino-Indian" economic powers -- and a handful of offhand remarks on everything from sex to perverted medicine.

Morton, the lab chimp with human DNA, decides to reject civilization with a Moody-esque litany of reasons including "individually wrapped slices," "perineal pain," "fat substitutes," "road rage," "haberdasheries" and "unfounded speculation."

Some of the book is in bad taste, especially astronauts coupling in weightlessness and the effects of flesh-eating bacteria brought back from Mars for Pentagon use as a bio-weapon.

Luckily, in reviewing this book, it's impossible to give too much away because there's so much. I'll stop here.

Mr. Moody, whose books "The Ice Storm" and "Purple America" were just the right doses of intense, concentrated emotion, has chosen the super economy size approach this time.

We are dazzled by his enormous hunger for words, but at a loss for what they all mean.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or .


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