Albany Journal – 7/26/12

When I hear the author’s name, Rick Moody, I am reminded of the snippet of news in the New York Post proclaiming that this millionare socialite who has traveled extensively to salons in both America and Europe somehow found his way to winning a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts – a place where thousands of writers each year apply for money to continue their artistic work.  So one could say that Rick Moody already has a strike against him, simply because the friends of the NEA keep him in the loop through the web of corruption that they’ve already built-up to feature only those writers who are already within their circles at the time.  In a nice tight circle they are, but there’s really nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about this predicament.  I could only travel up to the Writers Institute at Skidmore this evening to hear Rick Moody read, and from what I discovered, Rick Moody is still an incredible writer whether the higher ups steered a grant his way or not.

He opened up his reading by playing a song from a punk band called the Poques, whom the author had listened to and attended a concert back in the 1980s.  This was when New York punk music was filtering into the mainstream but was not quite strong enough to attract the bulk of Moody’s generation.  The song he played sounded like a Tom Waits song – one of Moody’s influences in music – and he played the music to introduce the audience to his book of music criticism that he wrote while moving out of rock and roll, its sex and drugs, and into the wild punk scene that kept him fixated until middle age.  Moody then took the stage again, once the song finished playing on the auditorium’s audio machine, and delved into his densely-packed review of the punk band the Poques.  He paid particular attention to the lead singer of the band, Shawn McGowan, and how his alcoholism ruined him but also led to many great songs articulated through this particular Irish punk rock band that he sang for.  Somehow, Moody doesn’t create such a connection between the same threadbare and well-worn track of an artist’s demons of alcohol, drugs, and sex, simply to make the point, quite strikingly delivered, that one doesn’t need to get ‘high’ or to be a drunkard in order to create good music.  Shawn McGowan might have been the exception to the rule, but still Moody insists, now that he himself has turned sober, that higher art can still be achieved without the wet and dry goods that often punish the members of a band in either their ascent to the top or their precipitous fall to the bottom.  Either way, his reading showed that he loved the Pogues and what they represented and made the point that good art can be created without the rock and roll fantasy land of drugs, sex, and liquor attached to it.

There were, however, several problems with his reading.  For one thing, his prose seemed to wander off in all different directions, as though he were multi-tasking his climb to high art in his work.  Secondly, he must have read for about an hour, leaving little room for Francine Prose, the next reader, to read her work.  Yet, there is no question in my mind that Moody can write well, but the liberties he takes in his art are often too grand and sometimes too repetitive to follow.  Cutting the work he read in half would have been better for everyone, but the multi-tasking in his work – by by cornering many digressions and twists and turns of the punk rock scene – really did lead to a fine artistry that Moody and the rest of the audience were satisfied with.  While I haven’t read enough of Moody’s work yet, I can say, quite eagerly, that Moody is in the same field as T.C. Boyle and others who write from the perspective of being rock stars themselves – or at least touching the top of it only to roll back down to the bottom of it.

If Rick Moody allows for more play in his work, Francine Prose is tied down to literary conventions that provide a clarity and structure to her work compared with Moody’s decadent style.  Prose read about the Parisian transgendered art world circa 1932 in an often humorous and interesting tale of how the cross-dressers in the piece worked together as lovers more than artists.  Actually, dressing up in women’s outfits were their art, and Prose’s narrator confirms that Paris was such a wonderful place to be – especially after dark when all of the secret clubs opened themselves to the night-time shape-shifters.  At some parts reminiscent for a forgotten time and at many times a humorous show of how these people interacted with each other, Prose paints the world of transvestites and transgendered people in a classical light, as her prose is flawlessly structured and what she writes about has been moved out of its history and into the world of contemporary high art.  She read wonderfully, and she cut her reading short considering that Rick Moody took nearly an hour reading his piece.

My conclusion is that these are two superb writers, and they were humbling to listen to, considering the power of their prose.  I can’t really speculate why they are brought back to the Writers Institute year-after-year, because there are millions upon millions of other writers available too, but I can safely say that these two writers deserved their time at the microphone, and their work kept the audience laughing for most of the night.  I’m lucky enough to have heard them read for the first time, and I hope they can continue their work, as it does serve great purpose.

And so I am back home now, and it is nearly five in the morning from where I am.  It has been raining for quite some time, something that we needed up here, but needed even more badly in the Midwest and Texas especially.  I’ll probably see Lisa tomorrow, and I hope she doesn’t think that I am too old for her, because I’m really not.  Staying too young and immature is the price I pay for not having a job or a family to support all of these years.  Even Rick Moody and Francine Prose probably have their own families, now that I think of it.  Unfortunately, their family lives don’t seem to filter into their art – at least not from what they read tonight.

Harvey Havel is the author of five novels. This past spring, Stories from the Fall of the Empire, his sixth book and his first collection of short stories, was recently released by Publish America. Later this summer, Two Tickets to Memphis, his sixth novel, is forthcoming from Publish America as well. Havel has previously taught Writing at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey and also at SUNY Albany and the College of St. Rose, both in Albany, New York. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1971, Havel now resides full time in Albany, New York.