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

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Moody's genealogical investigation presents the story of not only every damned Moody who ever trod this humble planet but also how he got their name and where he found out whatever he found out about them. We learn whose farm abutted whose and who begat whom and what everyone ate for breakfast. Similar material is often privately published for the British landed gentry and distributed for the edification of a few people. I think of volumes such as Prideaux: A Westcountry Clan, a book that has rightly had very little circulation outside Buckinghamshire. It's lovely if you are a Prideaux, but no one would dream of putting the volume into general circulation.

The one authentically interesting relative Moody ever supposed himself to have is the one who may have inspired Hawthorne's story. This man, Handkerchief Moody, wore a veil from the day he accidentally killed a friend until his own death. Rick Moody seems to see in him a model for all that is dark and strange and mysterious in himself. But the engagement with Handkerchief Moody soon becomes fanatical, the name repeated dozens of times, details of his life endlessly recatalogued, and Moody's overidentification with him takes on a ridiculous quality. A whole chapter is devoted to Moody's description of how he decided to take the veil himself; how he went to Wal-Mart for the fabric; how he fashioned the veil; and how he wore it (mercifully, not for very long). The image of Moody with his black nylon headcloth draped over his eyes attempting to recapture the dignity of his ancestor seems pathetic and awfully silly; and though Moody does laugh at himself in this section, he doesn't seem to understand how his mania has now exhausted and annoyed his readers. One wishes he would make something more of his family history than a tired private joke.

Moody's other problem is an affected imprecision of language. In many places his descriptions are lyrical, elegiac, and effortlessly compelling. But elsewhere he tends to resort to metaphors that sound good and mean little. After a college experiment with Australian Quaaludes, he reports, he was "talking like a reptile," which does not appear to mean that he was (like most reptiles I know) silent. The idea of reptiles seems to have him in its grip; a few hundred pages later he describes himself wandering through a department store on a "reptilian promenade." Reptiles in my experience like to sit in the sun; the idea of any of them strolling the aisles of a department store (or natural equivalent) at any speed seems most implausible.

He shows a great affection for italics; perhaps 5 percent of the book is in italics. They give the whole book a childish quality, rather like the Encyclopedia Brown stories in which the most important clues are italicized, as though emphasis could not be achieved by tone and content but only through typography. The prose appears to scream, demanding attention it hasn't earned: In the weeks after, she gave up hope of controlling herself, a control she never much exercised anyhow, and I'd come home from my job, where I was now a postgraduate, M.F.A.-holding typist and filer of memos, a reader of manuscripts by the very lonely, to find her already lit, drinking in front of the television with a glassy look, sitcom turned up louder than appropriate, wearing her wild kingdom expression, draped in the same clothes she had worn for several days, she would remember nothing of this exchange.

Moody is an extremely talented writer, but his memoir suggests he should stick to fiction.

Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Scribner, 2001) won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year and was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize.
 
     
     
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