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The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions    by Rick Moody order for
Black Veil
by Rick Moody
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Black Veil is an articulate, wry, sometimes melancholy, occasionally rambling, memoir of a complex 'genealogically obsessed' writer. It is full of diverting digressions that range from the 1709 roasting of William Moody by Indians to a 1965 flying saucer report, the resulting crater 'a conjunction of woods and technofuturistic mythology'. Tieing it all together is the notion of the veil itself. It shows up as: a 'Hooded Man' in the New York subway; a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Minister's Black Veil) about an ancestral Moody who veiled himself from his community; the veil theme in Hawthorne's work in general; the writer's personal veil of melancholy, and the universal one that creates our 'apartness' from each other.

The author begins with childhood recollections of father, grandfather and brother in Darien, Connecticut. Family stories are recounted with affection. I smiled at the early desire to pin blame on a younger sibling, and at dinner table negotiations on the consumption of vegetables. I appreciated the small child's perspective of a father ('He was a behemoth. My childhood interest in dinosaurs ... was really a metaphorical interest in dads') as a series of absolutes, and the eventual connection of father and son through books. I found the 'birthday party trick master' of a grandfather engaging and agreed with the author when he wished he 'could remember more of this, that memory wasn't just a series of desires'.

There is a fascination with the life of Hawthorne's subject, Handkerchief Moody, who represented to his descendant 'a picture of the almost total occlusion of life by sorrow and remorse'. This precedes an account of the author's own black period of melancholy, after regular substance abuse and an 'unexplained panic event', leading to a brief interlude in a psychiatric hospital. His ongoing commentary on contemporary life illuminates. Sometimes this comes across in a kind of puzzlement as in the discussion of 'a kid who kills' (even this topic connects back to Handkerchief Moody). At others it is edged with humor as on Christmas morning when 'Every gift, shucked of its wrappings, was a performance ... a conspiracy if obligations was upon us all'.

The memoir continues with geographical and historical excursions 'glutted with sentiment', and the author takes his ancestral interest to the logical conclusion by wearing the veil himself (it made him look 'like a lighting fixture' and he worried about his dentist's reaction.) He covers the history of blackness in Western civilization and concludes that 'concealment is essential to identity'; we all need our veils. Don't try to digest this book in one sitting. It engenders a range of emotions - nostalgia, sorrow, humor - and its author is not afraid to reveal his own depths, and to tear aside veils of delusion.

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