A bit of trivia: People who buy DVDs of The Crawling Hand from Amazon.com also have a soft spot for The Crawling Eye and The Thing From Another World. And chances are good that Rick Moody will have seen each of these lethally bad horror movies from the fifties and sixties.A devotee since childhood of B-movies of the monster persuasion, Moody began his latest novel as an "adaptation" of 1963's The Crawling Hand, in which the severed appendage of a failed moon-mission astronaut, infected with a malignant force, goes on a killing spree. (The hand in the movie looks about as real as Mark Wahlberg's killer prosthetic in Boogie Nights.) From this cheesy premise, Moody has done what he has been doing consistently throughout his oeuvre, in prose that is ecstatic and biting, cerebral and colloquial: chronicling America.
The Four Fingers of Death is big (in scope, not merely page count), bold, juicy and thought-provoking. With its publication, Rick Moody has become the most fun (I'm tempted to say "funnest") serious writer in America.
Dedicated to the late Kurt Vonnegut, the apical funnest serious American writer, The Four Fingers of Death is genre-skewering satire of early-21st-century America. This is not a book for science-fiction purists; neither is it for those whose idea of plot begins and ends with the heroine moping about for 350 pages over whether or not to attend the funeral of her estranged sister.
Structurally, the novel is replete with meta-fictional high jinks. The book is "A Novelization, with Introduction, Afterward and Notes" by one Montese Crandall. Crandall's beloved wife, Tara, is dying, his limited funds dwindling (Tara is addicted to the Futures Betting Syndicate, organized around possible outcomes to current events: "the assassination of the newly elected prime minister of Palestine," for example), his dream of authorship limited to single-sentence stories published on an obscure literary website.
(There's even a postmodern twist to the protagonist's name. Montese Crandall is a Californian who won the inclusion of his name in Moody's novel at a first-amendment-related charity auction.)
Monty's "novelization" of the 2026 remake of The Crawling Hand begins with nine astronauts setting out on spaceships bearing the loaded names Excelsior, Pequod and Geronimo - like the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria heading to lands hitherto uncolonized, in this case, Mars. Their fates, though, resemble nothing so much as that of the Franklin expedition's HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
It's 2025 and the American century is long over, NAFTA having succumbed to the might of the Sino-Indian economic co-operative pact. The Mars mission is the U.S.A.'s Hail Mary pass. But is there an added department of defence initiative? Let's just say a weapon of mass destruction never dreamed of by Saddam may lurk beneath the surface of the Red Planet.
The wild ride (of both the mission and Monty's novel) ends in a politically expedient and cynical wag-the-dog moment in an Arizona desert during a bacchanal modelled on the annual Burning Man alt-life shindig in Nevada.
In between blastoff and fallout, there's enough heartbreak, power-mongering and ethically questionable science, enough tour-de-force set pieces (two male astronauts having sex at zero gravity just one vivid example), enough conflicted characters - including Colonel Jed Richards, the conscience of the first half of the book and bearer of the soon-to-be evil hand; his Moses-like (read: Charlton Heston-like) co-astronaut, Jim Rose; a sentient, lovesick, unmanned Mars explorer (whose love poem to the Martian moon Phobos is only one gorgeous example of Moody's ability to do romantic without rendering it saccharine; and a more-than-sentient, lovesick laboratory chimpanzee named Morton - and enough thematic DNA to fuel at least three, maybe even four, novels.
In fact, as the sad-sack Monty interjects between Books One and Two of his "novelization," there are, depending on the order the sections are read, "four books in one, all of them assembled by you, and none privileged by me, as the writer, nor by the movie tie-in publishing company …"
Moody's characters engage in long, funky speeches that I didn't find excessive in the least, having just come off reading (and crazily enjoying the earnest Gothic excesses of) Jane Eyre, in which characters don't so much have conversations as provide an ongoing exegesis of the state of their souls. The tortured Capt. Jim Rose in Four Fingers of Death could easily be a literary descendent of the puritanical and monomaniacal St. John Rivers, Jane's erstwhile suitor.
The Four Fingers of Death is like a good old-fashioned 19th-century novel catapulted into the 21st century, trailing the campy, cosmic stardust of the sixties.
"[T]e realist novel still needs a kick in the ass," Moody wrote in Bookforum in 2003. "The genre … can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it's politically and philosophically dubious and often dull." Moody wrote slim realist novels, of which the best known is The Ice Storm, and two influential story collections, before liberating his restless ringmaster impulses with the sprawling entertainment-industry satire, The Diviners, followed by his triptych of novellas, Right Livelihoods, and now this postmodern, tragic-comic space opera.
The ex-military man Jed Richards joined NASA's space program because he thought, "I'd be good at loneliness." Throughout each of Moody's books, including his depression memoir The Black Veil, there is this palpable sense of yearning, of being on the outside looking in.
The Four Fingers of Death is a fun book, but a sad book, if that makes sense. In the way parties and summer can be fun, but sad. In the way life can be.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner is the editor of Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow, another book of genre-bending satirical visions, complete with the occasional lovesick astronaut and severed body part.