Step too close to The Diviners or make any sudden movements and the novel will erupt in a John Philip Sousa barrage of tuba farts and big brass bleats. In these 567 pages of fruit-striped Americana, author Rick Moody endeavors to swallow the whole of September 10th America in one big gulp. Every item that passes through the bandwidth of the upper-middle-class American mind is on the table, and his eye for period is immaculate: Yoga stands in for Pilates, Botox is a brave new world, reality TV is a fad that's sure to fade, and "indie film" is something the characters actually care to conquer. But where other recent kamikaze dives at the Great American Novel are powered either by a sympathetic grin at the flopsweat-soaked striver (Wolfe) or a connoisseur's cool appreciation for filigreed shapes amid red-white-and-blue debris (DeLillo), Moody's book has a single, furious engine: rage.
Everybody who has watched Dr. Phil smooth his pants knows the formula for the melancholy that Moody so eloquently described in his memoir The Black Veil: depression=anger turned inward. Well, he has let the beast out of the bag in The Diviners.
In the novel's first memorable portrait, a miserable fattie producer--Scott Rudin with internal sexual organs--sneaks away from the office where she torments her underlings to indulge in a Krispy Kreme gorge-a-thon. And Moody's description of the glazed sugar striking Fatso's unused orgasm neurons has the bone-crushing savagery of a jilted lover's valentine. Later, Moody tears a page from the Bruce Wagner playbook as he limns the passions of a Les Moonves-like lowbrow network chief whose lust is only succored by the bodies of...not just underage girls, but...underage girls with crippling back injuries!
It takes Moody till page 487 to get to the pièce de résistance, the flaming triple-chocolate parfait that seals the deal: his acid portrait of Dale Peck, the loathsome slash-n-burn book critic who slammed Moody as the worst writer of his generation. Here, Peck is reconfigured as "Randall Tork," an ugly, troll-like, unlovable homosexual wine critic who sits up nights contriving reviews that helplessly confess his spiritual infirmity:
These chardonnays have the mouth-feel of neglected vaginas begging to be brought beseechingly out of retirement.... Have I neglected to mention the overused dance belts of Broadway dancers, ossified with eons of sweat and antifungals? These wines have hints of these exquisite tastes.
Moody is indulging in baroque fag-bashing of the kind more often practiced on dark streets and in subway cars. But if you've ever read Peck, I have to confess, Moody will have your blood boiling with him in sympathy--even as he has "Randall Tork" cleaning the diarrhea of his sex-denying, immunodeficient beloved.
When there is too much, Moody gives you more. The book is a veritable almanac, a zodiac of nearly every kind of corporate or pop-culture frippery. Hand Moody a slip of paper with the words "Sweeps Miniseries" on it, let's say, or "Corporate Retreat" or "D-Girl Goes Out for Appletinis with Her Posse," and you'll get an exhausting master-class set piece, a federal case, a category-five Hurricane Rick knocking you over for 10 or 15 pages.
Moody is without a doubt shunning the navel-gazing of his MFA peers and aiming to ding the big bell. And if novels were graded on ambition, effort, and sheer skillfulness alone, The Diviners would get an A with 10 pluses at the end. But his skill set--daunting though it is--lets him down when it comes to making The Big Statement. Look, he wants to write the ultimate Hollywood horror vignette (Whoa! Bruce Wagner stole his parking space). Here he wants to paint supermodels and publicists in glacial blues and whites. (Too late--Bret Easton Ellis has marked the canvas with his urine.) Over there he's arranging a symphony performed by Masters of the Universe on their BlackBerries. (Old Man Wolfe already finished that one and closed up shop.) Seemingly everywhere he turns, somebody else has gotten the jump on him. (Speaking of which, is Annabel, the novel's sexy twentysomething black woman, a caricature, intentional or otherwise, of Moody's peer Zadie Smith?)
The Diviners--which has something, but not much, to do with a mythical miniseries about the history of thirst in Western culture--might have struck water with a flimsy, functional plot. But even without it, I think brave young Moody could have hauled this novel up to Parnassus. No, the real missing ingredient is what all that pent-up anger obscures: empathy, that moldy 19th-century ingredient that makes the bulgy epics of Mailer and Dos Passos still readable. We don't care what happens to any of Moody's fiction doodles standing in for 3-D human figures.
Ultimately, the only emotion that's evoked is our instinctive feeling of protectiveness for the only person in this exhausting work who's straining to exceed his limitations and achieve an impossible task: Raging Rick himself.