In the middle of his new memoir, Rick Moody dishes about some folks he knew at a psychiatric hospital in Queens. He had been a drunk and a paranoid. He checked himself in. He describes the ward (a spot familiar to readers of his 1992 novel ”Garden State”), laying out the scene in high-style word-jazz (the prose familiar to readers of ”The Ice Storm” and ”Purple America”), and he mentions, in passing, that it took him a while to realize that a fellow patient wore colored contacts: ”One of my therapeutic goals, see, was to learn how to look people in the eye, which, evidently, I never had done at all.”
That confession, which itself seems to flinch at the reader’s gaze, is as direct as his self-revelation gets in The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions. In the preface, the author disclaims: ”My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative.” In conclusion, he decides, ”Maybe it’s simply the case that concealment is essential to identity, that…we need a part of us that will never be known, so that the more we reveal, the more we are enveloped in veils.” Well, okay. Profound, even. But a perverse foundation for an autobiography, and ”The Black Veil” is a half-satisfying riff on remorse in which late-modern disaffection meets the ghost of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In 1836, Hawthorne published ”The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story about a preacher who, one Sunday, for ambiguous reasons, chooses to cover his face. A footnote explained that Hawthorne’s inspiration was a ”Mr. Joseph Moody,” who accidentally killed a friend in childhood and later donned a veil in shame. Rick Moody, growing up bourgeois in Connecticut in the 1970s (sailboats and station wagons, divorce in Darien), hears a family tale that Joseph (a.k.a. Handkerchief) Moody was an ancestor. ”I was going to pursue Handkerchief,” the author writes, manic italics thrusting headlong as ever. ”Much of my life had narrowed toward this particular theme.”
His life? Postadolescent Moody was a melancholy person who dulled his dread with booze. And just as the passages on his loneliness articulate a heartache worthy of William Styron’s ”Darkness Visible,” the hangovers clang worse than anything in Kingsley Amis. On Christmas Day, 1986, after an eve of beer, wine, bourbon, and eggnog, a 25-year-old Moody wakes to a panicked sensation he previously achieved during a bad drug experience in high school: He is made out of plastic. Very bad, but nothing a few drinks can’t fix. Three months later, he develops the conviction that he is ”going to be raped,” and this blooms into a prolonged and grotesque hallucination: ”[T]he streets around me were full of riots of sexual assault…everywhere bawds and adulterers, pedophiles and bestialists…all institutions of civilized America were window dressing for the excursion of sexual power into the ghetto of the powerless….” And so on. He checked himself in.
Much of ”The Black Veil” concerns the opaque life of sorrowful Handkerchief (no relation, it turns out) and the rich symbolism of the veil. Rick Moody is a writer who, after a halfhearted suicide attempt in college, found salvation in French literary theory, literally emerging from a quaaluded stupor into the semiotics department at Brown. Which is to say that his critical approach is playful, erudite, and halfway to hogwash. In one passage, he swerves from talk of 1990s school shootings back to his supposed ancestor and on to the beat writer William S. Burroughs. This discussion, though somewhat incoherent, throws up a few small, strong ideas about guilty hearts. Elsewhere, he is self-deflatingly comic. Feeling compelled to fashion an experimental veil for himself, he ventures to Wal-Mart: ”I settled finally on something in the middle of the fabric spectrum, a racy silken synthetic that would have made an excellent miniskirt, had I been inclined in that direction, and that draped marvelously without clinging.”
But self-analysis? The harrowing Christmas hangover remains an ”unexplained panic event,” and Moody’s not telling how it feels to dry out or grow up. He does say that to make the cut for ”The Black Veil,” stories from his life needed to be ”interesting, relevant, and subjectible to style.” (Italics, this time, mine.) As the saying goes, style is the man himself, and Rick Moody has taken it to heart. Here he is, ornate and oratorical language moving laterally, achieving resolutions only of rhythm, performing a dance of the veils that discloses very little.