Demonology, Rick Moody’s latest book, is less a short-story collection per se than an eclectic gathering of great short fiction. That is to say, Moody probably didn’t conceive of Demonology as a book while he was penning the stories, evidenced both by the time that separates their publication and the pastiche of styles, forms and subject matter. This makes taking on Demonology as a collection more cumbersome than, say, encountering them one-by-one, nestled among the prestigious pages of the journals where they (rightfully) first appeared.
In the thirteen stories assembled in Demonology, Moody seems eager to explore new forms and subjects for his writing, and in the process of this exploration, show how broad and varied his talent really is. The collection is wide-ranging, moving from yacht club mixers on the Eastern seaboard to a bottomed-out ostrich farm(is there any other kind?) in Ohio to a drive-in drive-by in Los Angeles. The collection is peopled with the quirky sorts of people that tend to move through the landscape of short fiction, and the stories revolve around exactly the kinds of moments good short fiction should. In the bizarre, slightly-skewed worlds of the characters in Demonology, Moody finds the perfect medium for his deliciously ironic sense of humor, the exacting specificity of his metaphors, and the power of his ability to render deeply sympathetic characters and situations.
In “Forecast from the Retail Desk,” a narrator’s perceived ability for seeing the future turns out to be a gift he’d rather go without. In “Drawer,” semantics hold the key to a failed relationship. In “The Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal,” the female narrator gets explosively fed up with arguing over esoteric gender philosophy with her lazy Ph.D. candidate boyfriend. Moody even ventures into Grimm’s territory, with “Pan’s Fair Throng” an allegorical fairy tale. Each of these stories work, in part, because of Moody’s chameleon ability to fit his narrative voice to the subject at hand. His breathless pacing lends itself well to “Boys,” a poignant-and characteristically ironic-story:
“Two boys, one striking the other with a rubberized hot dog, enter the house. Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house, speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house, calling for mother. On a Sunday, in May, a day one might nearly describe as perfect, an ice cream truck comes slowly down the lane, chimes inducing salivation, and children run after it, not long after which boys dig a hole in the backyard and bury their younger sister’s dolls two feet down, so that she will never find these dolls and these dolls will rot in hell, after which boys enter the house. Boys, trailing after their father like he is the Second Goddamned Coming of Christ Goddamned Almighty, enter the house, repair to the basement to watch baseball.” (p239-240)
The deliberate repetition and short, descriptive sentences are touchstones which Moody calls back to for the final, powerful sentences that end the piece, and mark the sometimes momentary transition from boyhood to manhood. As with most of the stories here, Moody moves seamlessly-progressively-from the absurd to the sublime.
“Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13” follows a madman bibliographer’s life-long obsessions with the spines of books and a girl named Anna(“she of the palindromic name,” p.268) through numbered installments that center around a strange and eclectic collection of books(including Moody’s own “Garden State”). As the narrator progresses through the collection, so does his madness, and his obsession for Anna:
“…I was reading the opening of Ancient Evenings by flashlight when who should go past, down below, on the verdant Cambridge street where I lived, but Anna Feldman, like a specter from a future I would never have. I called to her, Anna! Hey, Anna! It’s me, up here on the roof! I’m up here! Was it a harbinger of my decline that there was an unmistakable hastening away of her footstep at the sound of my voice? Did I imagine it? Or was I my own adversary, and she just my catalytic muse? I threw the book after her, from the roof, its leaves, its boards, like wings flapping, flightless, tumbling, foliating, to earth…” (p.281)
Most of the stories are marked with this brand of superb prose. Some, however, fall a bit short. For example, “Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set,” which is set in liner-note-style columns. In the left-hand column, Wilkie reminisces about his life and the music that accompanied it. On the right-hand column is a list of song titles. Clever idea, but utterly off-putting to a reader. And “On the Carousel” only adds to the catalogue of L.A. cliché-drive by shootings aren’t as routine there as Hollywood film producers would have the rest of the world believe.
Moody shines brightest with straight-charging stories of love and loss. “Mansion on the Hill,” the first story in the collection, is a wonderfully droll and touching story of a man’s loss – incidentally, the first of two stories that deal with the subject of a deceased sister. The second, Demonology, was deservedly awarded both Pushcart and O. Henry prizes. Again, Moody’s exacting detail renders his characters wholly authentic. He gives emotional weight to a tragic, but unremarkable household melodrama with the same skill of Updike and Ford, two other notable chroniclers of East coast suburbia. Moody makes it real, and even gives indication that the people and events of the story did exist in the stunning, painful final paragraph.
Moody’s vivid characterization and the believability of their actions makes these stories interesting, but it is his language that carries the collection. His love of words and imagery beats at the heart of every story, and makes the most prosaic scene spill over with stunning meaning and portent. Ultimately, this language makes the stories gathered here well worth reading.
Reviewed by Drew Cherry