Oyster Boy Review 06  
  January 1997
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The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, by Rick Moody

Steve Kistulentz

  The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven.
Rick Moody.
Warner Books, 1996.
241 pages, $11.99 (paperback).
ISBN: 0446672408

To me, one of the most beautiful words in the English language is glossolalia. From the Latin root glossa, or tongue, it means an eruption of words, usually under the influence of a trance; think of snakehandlers, or Pentacostals speaking in tongues. In Rick Moody's third book, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, a novella and stories, we find a writer with a gift for wordcraft that rivals those spontaneous eruptions. Each story is glossolalia, a true convulsive gift of words.

The title novella is the most rewarding piece in this book. A trip through sex clubs, shooting galleries and crack houses, with a supporting cast of transvestites and submissives, "Ring" is a downtown story with echoes of Nelson Algren and Jim Carroll. Its language propels the reader along with an almost musical momentum. In a novella where one of the central characters makes a documentary that she never completes, it is appropriate that much of the action is narrated from a filmic perspective. The combination of visual and lyric, coupled with the author's astounding compassion for his subjects, makes this novella an almost sensual experience, a binge of life through the East Village, Hell's Kitchen, and the Upper East Side.

An early story in the collection, "The Grid," shares with the title piece an interesting obsession with the notion of coincidence. Just as "Ring" culminates with its characters intersecting at a bakery that serves as a front for a Lower East Side heroin dealer, "The Grid" focuses on people that intersect at a specific Sixteenth Street address. Throughout the book, Moody displays an interest in risk-taking. While his first novel, Garden State, was rendered in primarily realist fashion, each of the stories in Ring makes a deliberate attempt to step beyond the real. Many of the stories present experiments in form; "The Preliminary Notes" is presented as the deposition of an expert witness in an accident case, yet the text is presented as an outline, with a numbering system lifted from the writings of Wittgenstein. Moody does not shy away from the touchstones of either academe or popular culture. "Pip Adrift" is a continuation of Melville's most famous novel, while "The James Dean Garage Band" begins its dissection of the popular icon by saying, "He walked away from the accident, of course."

Another of the book's exemplary stories is "The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner," a palimpsest where the narrator, a college student, maps the experiences of his own life onto the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Through Bob Paisner's term paper, we learn of his obsession with communication, the struggle it is for him to relate to his roommate, his professor, and most painfully, the women of his university. The narrator's obsession with the minutiae of apocalyptic scholarship replaces, at least for an evening, any healthy pursuit. Yet it manages to present a humanistic world view, and as readers, we wince at Bob Paisner's efforts to extract a simple human connection, a hug from a coed in a dormitory laundry room.

In a recent blurb for an unknown writer, Norman Mailer commented that the art of the short story depended on "the felicity of the details." It was the type of fatuous comment you'd expect from Mailer, except that he is half right. Stories, like the immensely successful ones in Ring, depend not only on the felicity of details, but of language as well.