There are writers who follow etiquette, who invite you in and make sure that you are comfortably seated before they begin a round of proper introductions, seduce you with their careful clauses and their correct flatware and the nice meals they have prepared for you. And then there are writers who are simply so good that they don't feel the need to ask your permission before they take you over a cliff or into a train wreck or introduce you to a dead family member or a teenage arsonist. Rick Moody is, of course, the second kind, the kind of writer who doesn't stop to say "please" and "thank you."
Sometimes, in fact, he does not stop at all. Reading Moody is not a placid experience. You can surface, seasick, paragraphs, pages or even an entire story later without ever having been brought to a full stop. Last week, in Central Park, I heard a very well-groomed 5-year-old boy tell another very well-groomed 5-year-old boy, "I said, 'Period.' That means the end of conversation." In Moody's work, conversations never quite come to an end -- they never even resolve themselves into something resembling a denouement. On the other hand, he never allows his style to solidify into shtick; to do so would be predictable, and Moody is anything but. So within this collection, you can find a story told entirely by a list of books ("Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13") and another told as an annotation to a series of mix tapes that catalog an entire life ("Wilkie Fahnstock, the Boxed Set"). There are stories about surburban prep school boys gone bad ("Boys" and "The Carnival Tradition"), a story about retail workers ("Forecast From the Retail Desk") and a story about a couple of failed yew-tree and ostrich farmers told from the perspective of their son ("The Double Zero"). Two stories about dead sisters act as bookends to open and close the collection -- the title story and my personal favorite, "The Mansion on the Hill," which opens with the line "The Chicken Mask was sorrowful, Sis."
If you are a careful and voracious reader of A) Rick Moody, B) respected literary journals and glossy magazines that publish literary fiction or C) anthologies that promise you the "best of" everything that has appeared in category B during the last calendar year, you may also experience déjà vu. All of these stories have previously appeared elsewhere -- the title story has been published in no fewer than four journals and/or anthologies. This is of no consequence. You should buy this book anyway. Magazines get lost and torn and are hard to store, and if you buy the anthologies, many of the other stories will not be as good as the stories in this book. And not to be trivial, but the cover art -- a tube of Smarties (which the perspicacious reader will recognize from the title story) against a chlorinated swimming pool blue background -- is an admixture of coolness, pop, artifice and beauty -- just like the contents contained therein.