By Rick Moody, Little, Brown, 306 pp., $24.95
"The Chicken Mask was sorrowful, Sis." So begins the first story, "The Mansion on the Hill." It's an intriguing sentence in its duality, for by "sorrowful" Moody means both pathetic and regretful: The mask is a talisman of good times long past and the bad times in which his characters are inescapably mired. Such an item appears in almost every story here, as the inhabitants find themselves trapped in bad situations that can only get worse.
After dressing as a chicken to advertise a fast-food restaurant called Hot Bird, Andrew Wakefield -- the man behind the mask -- finds work at the Mansion on the Hill, a wedding hall featuring a number of different chapels with names like the Ticonderoga and the Rip Van Winkle. Here, Andrew helps organize and host all types of weddings, from modest to extravagant, while steering clear of his dour, demanding boss. But in this "place of fluffy endings," Andrew carries a "barely concealed sadness," and Moody captures it with deep empathy, despite the story's comic tone and satiric edge. While excelling in this regard, "The Mansion on the Hill" recalls recent works by George Saunders, who carves surprisingly moving tales from bizarre workplaces. Moody does not fare well in this comparison.
More successful is "Forecast from the Retail Desk," in which Everett Bennett, a self-styled psychic who works at an online investment firm, claims he can see the future, specifically the bad things that will happen to the people around him. His skill, he discovers, is not a gift but a curse: Everett blames himself for all the tragedies that befall people, as if by predicting an event he directly causes it. Tortured by the horrible visions of an unchangeable future, he is likewise haunted by the grave mistakes of the past. Writing in first person, Moody creates in Everett a genuinely compelling, truly soulful character, one whose forlorn voice marks this harrowing story with a profound, lurking sadness.
The collection's best moments come during its longest piece, a two-part novella titled "The Carnival Tradition." In it, Gerry Abramowitz recounts a car accident that leaves him with a crippled arm, which he calls the Claw, and an addiction to painkillers. He also reminisces about his teenage years in New England, specifically a rich kid's Halloween party that ends in a fiery disaster. This section reveals Moody at his finest, seamlessly evoking the awkwardness of adolescence during the late 1970s and creating an air of autumnal melancholy. And through prose that is both lucid and wrenching, Gerry becomes his most realistic creation, a character tragically defined by his own bitterness and defeat.
In too many stories, however, Moody's high-concept experimentalism and dense writing style prevent the development of character, tone, and setting. "On the Carousel" uses the business language of Hollywood -- net, back end, options, test screenings -- to examine "whether language itself clutters up what otherwise might be simple." Illustrating this idea is Lily, a script doctor who, while driving through Los Angeles, frets over her possibly mentally handicapped son, her job, and her husband. She pulls into a McDonald's to buy juice for her daughter and ends up in the crossfire of a gangland shoot-out.
It's an interesting concept certainly, but that's all it is. To an extent, Moody develops the idea through his acrobatic, ever-intelligent prose and excruciatingly slow pacing, but since Lily is neither a realistic nor a very well-developed character, he ends up talking the idea to death.
Ultimately, Moody's most damning sin in Demonology is that he cannot distinguish his strengths from his weaknesses. At his worst, his writing is strained and inflated, too dependent on gimmicks to adequately engage the reader. But at his best, he can be thought-provoking and highly original, his dense, often graceful prose capturing all the angst and loss of characters anchored to history.
Demonology contains some truly memorable stories, and their images and emotions stick around long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. But as a whole, it suffers a lack of cohesion and purpose that prevents it from achieving its lofty ambitions.