“Thing is, while I was reading the script, I did have that sensation that I could start eating steak tartar out of a dog bowl and it would be liberating somehow,” Thaddeus Griffin, action hero of movies like Single Bullet Theory, says in Rick Moody’s new novel The Diviners. He’s discussing a screenplay about the wife of the Marquis de Sade while trying to seduce a girl. Mad and banal, cocksure and frivolous, the line drops right into Moody’s books-long, decades-fording chronology of American plaintiveness, though The Diviners—spottily comedic and arriving with “position” words like hilarious and rollicking—has a more erratic fit.
The book spans the morning after Election Day 2000 and the night before the Supreme Court ruling that will install Bush II: Totems like chad and Florida push through ominously from time to time, but none of the characters feel alarm or seem to have voted; they’re busy either chasing or conjuring an elusive script for a 13-part, historically false TV miniseries about dowsers. In their defense, they didn’t know what was coming. Moody writes of Mary’s terror in the annunciation paintings—she “didn’t want to get knocked up by an abstraction.” That’s kind of like what happened to us. Back then, pre-Bush, tongue-in-cheekly pre–9-11 (the towers are written off, aesthetically, with the refrain “Who gives a shit?”), it was easier to be the autocrat of one’s own little world, but what unpleasant worlds: really just a collection of people, mostly men, delivering long, reliably intolerable monologues to other people, mostly women.
Another version of the intercourse-loath “era of barter” of Moody’s first novel, Garden State, The Diviners‘ Clintonian last days play out in odd, awkward, or criminal pairings. Jeanine, a burn victim who came East after setting off an infamous Arizona wildfire, gets it: “Of course the real mistake is to spend five minutes in the condition of longing.” Small yelps toward desire or desperation are almost guaranteed to bring people around, like this charmer of Beat-like flow: “Just take me home with you, let me see your hair care products, let me know if your bathrobe is tartan, or white, or one of those Japanese kimonos. I can’t think about our stories going off in separate directions, like if I go back to my house, it’s just going to be a split-screen thing, and I can’t take that.”
Moody’s always gotten the tone of pity mongering close to right, but The Diviners‘ strongest cuts get outside the need: In a pure physical-comedy bit, a company honcho disposes of a rival lacking an opposable thumb by leaving him at the bottom of an 18-foot wall in a timed exercise in “teamwork.” Another chapter has a young woman comatose after an unknown bike messenger bashes in her head with a brick. For clues, the NYPD turns to the girl’s diary, and the image of cops around the notebook manages warmth even as the satire turns to grief (or writing?) and its clichés: “One section of the diary [about a friend’s death in an outer borough crack house] . . . was for the detectives kind of a page turner. . . . All of this is not ‘something to be learned,’ according to the diarist. This is something to ‘accept the way you accept that winter will come.’ ”
Other chapters involve the Thanksgiving episode of the hit TV show The Werewolves of Fairfield County, about a Connecticut county where “the human species has spontaneously come to express a genetic crisis,” namely that certain of its members are full-moon lycanthropes. A third eye hovers over Diviners characters watching, from coast to coast, the more real, blue-screen loves, fears, and failures—these are graceful, even challenging pages that intuit the season-to- season shading of an American TV series as the measure of our growth, of how we’ve eaten ourselves out of the possibility for categories like pulp. Meta-context aside, the writing is finer. If nobody signs Moody on to write the pilot episode, why not a novel made entirely of plot synopses of Werewolves? Rather that than The Diviners‘ first chapter, titled “Opening Credits and Theme Music,” an apostrophe of sorts (a mode Moody has never chickened out on and has the stamina to endure for pages) to “light.”
Readers have expectations about Moody’s prose; he probably has ideas about it too (Thaddeus Griffin, on people: “They need to say cock a lot, the way they say sunrise, the way they say pang of regret“). Written both to and away from the test, The Diviners is messy (two women—or girleens—are described using the launching-ships
yardstick, which is fair given that it’s one of our old but enduring and still splendid Western tropes, but two “whippet thin” men?), fluctuatingly, perhaps experimentally, awful and absorbing, with a cast that
swells up to the Star Wars council–ish last moment. Producers of Werewolves knew to “reserve a little improvement in the matter of the transformation” from man to wolf; The Diviners, its rhapsodies too forthcoming for its fallen world, and with ultimately obscure intent, would seem to make for bad TV.