Rick Moody’s Purple America

The opening scene of Rick Moody’s Purple America involves a son bathing his mother, told in just two sentences. The first reads: “Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother’s body, he shall never die.” The next sentence goes on for three pages. Just as the reader begins to wonder about the Oedipal nightmare being described to us, we get an explanation, or the hint of one: our protagonist, Dexter Ratcliffe, has returned to Connecticut from New York to care for his mother, Billie, who has been suffering from a crippling neurological disease that has rendered her more or less quadriplegic. The job (burden) of chief caretaker had previously previously been occupied by Dexter’s step-father, Lou Sloane, but he has taken off, leaving a note behind him, and his disappearance has prompted Dexter’s summons. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single weekend, but those few days are time enough for Moody to flesh out the backstories of his characters and deliver us an expertly balanced novel of comedy and pathos.

There are early and frequent allusions to the colour purple in the novel, and these bear some examination as they touch on Moody’s design. Purple has a long-standing association with power and privilege (for the centuries prior to synthetics, the ingredients that made the earliest purple dyes were so rare that only monarchs could afford them), and Purple America takes place in some of the wealthiest enclaves of Connecticut, one of the oldest and wealthiest states in America. But neither Dexter nor his mother Billie are descendants of that wealth and nobility; rather, Dexter’s mother Billie married into wealth, and her first husband – Dexter’s father – has died years before the novel begins, when Dexter was still a child. The home Dexter grew up, and in which his mother still lives, was built on a grand scale, with servant’s quarters and ornate wood finishings, but it has since fallen into disrepair, and large sections of the home are seldom visited. This theme of degeneration extends into the characters themselves: Billie, of course, suffers from a degenerative neurological condition, and Dexter has had a lifelong stammer, and though he is well into his 30s, his job as a publicist does not support him without supplementary help from his inheritance. References to the colour purple are everywhere, from the towels used to mop up Billie Ratliffe’s urine when she soils herself, to the BDSM ropes Dexter uses to tie up his love interest – even the local gay night club, housed inside a church (continuing a theme) is named Aubergine. Power has given way to filth, to decadence, to degeneration, usually by the intermediary of some pollutant – urine, say, or a sexual fetish, or nuclear radiation seeping from the local power plant, whose numerous structural problems and lapsed safety protocols testify to a far deadlier form of decay.

In such a degraded world, Dexter “Hex” Ratliffe emerges as our protagonist, and the nickname – given his stammer, and his alcoholism, and his mother’s affliction – seems apt. Dexter is our hero, but “if he’s a hero, then heroes are five-and-dime, and the world is as crowded with them as it is with stray pets, worn tires, and missing keys.” He is, in other words, totally unremarkable, except perhaps for the extent of his suffering. Here, for example, is Moody’s description of Dexter’s loneliness, and a good testament to how well this author can shape a sentence:

Loneliness was his parking space, his fully furnished studio, loneliness was that apartness that had been a feature of his comings and going way back into the browned edges of memory; back through his twenties and after-hours drunkenness in NYC; back through the teens; back through the snapshot humiliations of his chubby boyhood; back even unto infancy, loneliness like a foreign tongue, like an absent dream. It was the siren call of himself.

At another point, his love interest, Jane Ingersoll, will describe him as looking “like a chipmunk in the road, in that instant before a professional sleazebag in a Lexus smushes the furry little thing.” Dexter is a pitiable figure in almost every respect, and Moody mines his faults for any number of laughs, but he never quite makes him ridiculous, never allows us to lose our pity for him so completely that we cease to sympathize with the circumstances of his life. In fact, the very same can be said about all of the book’s characters, flawed creatures all. In one of the book’s opening scenes, for example, Dexter arrives home only to have his mother attempt to make him promise to kill her, to end her suffering, and she does so – because she cannot talk – by writing out a lengthy note delineating why dignity and decency demand she be allowed to die. But the computer on which she’s typing was purchased specifically for her handicap, and is programmed to read out anything typed on it:

As she completes her seminal document, her final wishes, she hits Go on her HandiSpeak software – such that her nemesis, the Microsoft tax collector woman, begins to sing out to the two of them, mother and son, to sing out the sentences lately composed, in the vault of the living room, as if reciting oven-cleaning instructions or do’s and don’ts of water safety.

If we can laugh at the absurdity of the scene, we nonetheless cannot forget its emotional significance, and if our protagonist Dexter Ratliffe is pitiable for his stammer and pathetic for his addiction, he attains a kind of heroism every time he washes his mother’s crippled body or changes her soiled clothes. But when the issue is forced, when circumstances demand that Dexter either commit to ending his mother’s life or commit to a lifetime of caring for her, he buckles under the weight of his burden in spectacular fashion. A half-formed thing himself, he cannot rise to the challenges life presents him – and so he runs from them.