In the safety of American suburbia lurk trauma and tragedy. Douglas Kennedy takes a trip down those green streets
Purple America

by Rick Moody

Flamingo, pounds 16.99

Thirty minutes north of Manhattan, the green begins. Goodbye, urban mean streets; hello, verdant rolling lawns. And white clapboard houses. And safe state schools. And avenues you can drive down at night without pondering the possibilities of GBH. And lower taxes. And all those other sensible virtues that (in the years since the atom was split) have made the suburbs such an attractive "lifestyle" option for the American bourgeoisie.

Back in the narcoleptic 1950s - the Eisenhower age of grey-flannelled conformity and extensive baby-making - the 'burbs were the destination of choice for any rising young professional, playing the corporate game and digging himself deeper into an over-mortgaged dead-end. But, like all would-be El Dorados, this realm of backyard barbecues and good orthodonture turned out to be a Faustian bargain for those who embraced it. As all those enervated executives (and their highly educated, highly frustrated stay-at-home wives) discovered, the 'burbs were the mental and visual equivalent of vanilla ice-cream: bland, boring, stifling.

No wonder, therefore, that so many postwar American writers discovered a new battleground called suburbia. No wonder it remains such a preoccupation in US fiction. Like so much of American life, the suburb is an utopian ideal gone wrong. Couples go there to "play house" and insulate themselves from the detritus of modern life - but inevitably generate their very own psychological detritus.

Utopias, after all, are dull. Dullness begetteth discontentment... which begetteth dysfunctionality. And, as any Yank will tell you (this one included), dysfunctionality is as American as liposuction.

Rick Moody is something of a specialist in suburban dysfunctionality. His novel, The Ice Storm (now a rather wonderful film), was a mordant account of marital collapse and familial estrangement in the well-heeled cul-de-sacs of Connecticut, set over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. Its sharp smart tone (not to mention its brilliant rendering of 1970s tackiness) sneakily lulled you into believing you were reading satire of a very high order. Until, out of the blue, it flattened you with an emotional sucker-punch - which not only left you quietly devastated, but also convinced that you had just finished one of the more significant American novels of the past few years.

- Moody's new novel - is another incursion into suburban disaffection, albeit one set further up the Connecticut coast near the declasse Coast Guard town of New London. And, Jesus Christ, is it bleak. Consider the basic plot: Hex Raitliffe, a failed Manhattan PR man (who arranges parties for the so-called beau monde) returns home to nurse his 70-year-old mother who has just been abandoned by her second husband. Husband One (Hex's dad) dropped dead years ago of an apparent heart attack on the floor of a church basement (in fact he was a victim of radiation poisoning while in the military). Husband Two, Lou, works in a nuclear power plant (from which he has just been sacked) - and has finally abandoned Ma Raitliffe after 15 years of marriage because her premature senile dementia has essentially crushed his spirit.

And so Hex arrives to change Mom's sodden nappies and wipe her bottom, and to muse on the fact that his life is a catastrophe. Not only is his career in free-fall; he also happens to be an alcoholic with a pronounced stutter. And during the next 24 hours, disaster piles upon disaster. Hex gets the crap kicked out of him by a Polish redneck, falls in love with an old high-school object-of-desire (who, in a particularly romantic moment, helps him insert a catheter into his Mom's urethra), watches as a rented car goes up in flames, and eventually ends up in an armed stand-off with the cops. Meanwhile, nuclear waste is allegedly leaking into Connecticut waters.

You don't need a doctorate to cop the analogy Moody is making between the leakage of nuclear power and the implosion of the nuclear family. And fans of Very Long Paragraphs will rejoice in this virtuosic downer of a novel, as Moody frequently lets loose with four-pages-without-drawing- a-breath torrents of prose.

Indeed, is wildly ambitious, and wildly overwritten. Though you admire its verbal fluency (with the exception of Don DeLillo, no one writes better about the gimcrackery of consumer culture) and its skewed compassion, the narrative is eventually swamped by the monsoon-like effects of Moody's prose. Inevitably, this excessive display of brio begins to numb your faculties - to the point where your interest in the central story heads south, and you find yourself battling to get through the next cloud-burst of language

Moody is a seriously serious writer, and an abundantly gifted stylist. But you sense that, with this book, he's decided to up the ante and write a Very Important Novel - and, in doing so, he has literally lost the plot.