"A consciousness in which the sense of guilt luxuriates like noisome growths in a swamp." That's how critic Newton Arvin once described Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it applies just as well to Rick Moody and his latest book, THE BLACK VEIL. A memoir by the author of THE ICE STORM, PURPLE AMERICA, and DEMONOLOGY, this is no vicariously thrilling romp through the debauched life of an emotionally tortured young author, despite what the jacket copy promises. It's a difficult read. Moody's not the type to take you straight from A to Z in a nice, tidy line, leaving you with the satisfaction of a story arc described and completed. Nope --- he circles his subject like a prowling animal, viewing it from all angles and in every possible light, examining it to such a degree that by the time he finally pounces at it --- if he pounces at it --- the moment has lost its importance, and you realize that the predatory circling was the whole point all along.
In the case of THE BLACK VEIL, the subject would seem to be harder to avoid, as it is, to a large degree, Moody himself. But he manages. The book's subtitle is "A Memoir with Digressions," but it might have been more accurately called "A Memoir of Digressions." Moody intersperses episodes from his childhood and his early 20s --- when he was institutionalized for mental problems that included paranoia, depression, and alcoholism --- with critical analyses of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil."
The combination makes for rough going at times, a fact Moody acknowledges. (He warns readers in the introduction that "My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative"; later, he pleads with us not to skip over the parts of the book that move more slowly.) The sections about his youthful excesses, his self-destructive abuse of drugs and alcohol and other people, are sympathetic and often funny ("I'm afraid I might be made of plastic. So I think I have to turn myself in," Moody tells some friends while in the panicky grip of hallucinogens). But then he keeps going back to Hawthorne and that veil. "Horace, scribe of antiquity, remarked in his 'Ars Poetica' that things repeated are pleasing, and Hawthorne must have been keenly observant of the strategy, since...he found himself unable to avoid reprising the same tangle of ambiguities that linger around his principal garment from 'The Minister's Black Veil,'" Moody writes --- but he's hardly one to talk.
If his obsession with Hawthorne and the veil seems insane at first, it soon takes on a satisfying rhythm, becoming a macrocosmic version of one of Moody's endless sentences. A trained musician, Moody has said that he writes with jazz always in mind. So his sentences sound like terrific solo improvisations on a theme, meticulously arranged but with a loose, casual feel, and referencing favorite quotations as a jazz solo would; for example: "...everything in my adult life seems to have hinged on this morning, including my need to search for my ancestor Handkerchief Moody, but my heart is faint, as you might suppose, diverse and confused, and by writing these things I am afraid of conjuring them, and though I do not believe that melancholy is about anything, I am afraid, and my brain is troubled by reason of a melancholy juice bred in it, so I choose merely to give the idea that appeared to serve as the trigger of this disease hot and dry or cold and dry or pale and ruddy, this disease."
In the end, it doesn't really matter whether Moody's efforts to link Joseph "Handkerchief" Moody --- Hawthorne's inspiration for his tale --- to his own family line are successful. The real subject this memoir is circling --- the guilt and helpless isolation that inspired Hawthorne's minister to hide his face from the world for the rest of his life --- doesn't travel along family lines. What Moody is writing about is a universal veil; in some way we all wear it, even if it manages to veil itself from us. Odd that the one commonality among humans --- the one thing that links us all, from Handkerchief Moody to murderous teen Kip Kinkel to "accidental" killer William Burroughs to the author himself and each of his readers --- is our dreadful, inescapable isolation. The veil that separates us from one another is the one thing we all share. As Hawthorne's veiled minister said on his deathbed, "I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil."
Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen on January 21, 2011