The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions, by Rick Moody. Boston and New York: Little, Brown. 318 pages. $24.95. BUY NOW

     
 

It has become fashionable to write a memoir too soon. Not that one doesn't have a great deal to recall even when one is ten years old: All kinds of events are etched in memory, and many seem significant, and they can be put in service of various larger causes. Fictionalize them. Write travel books or spiritual explorations. But don't assume that being famous is tantamount to being interesting; don't publish a memoir unless you have a life story that warrants one.

Rick Moody is a gifted writer whose dense prose can be extremely evocative. When he's actually telling a story, he keeps you right in the palm of his hand, and The Black Veil has some really magnificent passages. The preface, about Moody's childhood, is extremely strong and very funny. Later in the book, Moody chronicles with great passion and skill his descent into depressive madness. He evokes the private terrors of alcoholism so sharply that you feel ready yourself to give up drinking at once. His narrative of entering a hospital for rehabilitation therapy is smart and acute, manifesting his gift for ironic self-consciousness. He conjures not only the despair that brought him to the hospital but also the humiliation of being there. Poignantly, he tells us how he separated himself from the hospital experience as quickly as possible and how his friends and family, once he got out, insisted on his forgetting where he had just been and what had happened to him there. Moody is also strong on character. Though his intimacies with others always seem compromised and insufficient, his insight and deployment of representative details make the people in this book thrillingly plausible. There's an acuity in his descriptions that makes you ache. That he can convey this while dramatizing his own emotional harshness is a considerable achievement.

It's a shame that, despite all these virtues, The Black Veil is an unsuccessful book. Personal history can be self-revelatory, but Moody's is too self-obsessed. He recounts every rambling thought that ever entered his head, so that reading this book feels like eavesdropping on someone's interminable psychoanalysis: It's often excruciatingly dull and unmitigatedly narcissistic.

To supplement the self-obsession Moody uses two devices, both centered on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," an intensely weird and rather moving story, which Moody reprints in its entirety at the back of the book. Moody uses the tale as an opportunity to philosophize about literary criticism as well as to pursue his family's genealogy.

Unfortunately, Moody is no Harold Bloom. His insights into this story are ponderous and often banal, and the passages he quotes from other people's commentaries on it remind me of those smatterings of famous prose that undergraduates sprinkle through their term papers to prove they have done the reading. Moody so ably proposes a high standard for literary criticism that his failure to rise to it is all the more obvious: None of the criticism here is wrong, but it hardly supplements our knowledge or enjoyment of Hawthorne's dark story.

 
     
     
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