He Had a Hat

Introduction to a Reading by Rick Moody Thursday, July 26, 2012
The New York State Writers Institute
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, New York

So a boy is out swimming in the ocean and the water’s rough.

A thrilling, pre-hurricane surf. But the boy’s mother is on the shoreline panicking. And, sure enough, her son can’t seem to swim back in. The mother is really carrying on as one person after another tries to swim out to grab her boy. Finally, someone reaches him and drags him to the beach. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And the kid is saved. Everyone applauds. Except the mother, who just stands there with her hands on her hips. “What?” the rescuer asks? The mother says, “He had a hat.”

Rick Moody does indeed have a hat: a black felt, pork pie hat with a “telescopic crown”: the rim drops down like a retracting telescope. And crown because, well, we’re talking about a king of a certain swing.

The pork pie is the hat of Civil War soldiers. It’s the hat Buster Keaton wore. Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.

Charles Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” as an elegy for one of the best saxophonists who ever lived, Lester Young. And Joni Mitchell wrote lyrics for the song when she made an album with Mingus just months before he died. “The sweetest swinging music man/Had a Porkie Pig hat on/… A bright star/In a dark age.”

I’ve told you the joke about the mother and the boy and his hat, not just because Rick Moody has a hat, but because of that Keatsian idea of a bright star. The joke is about rescue. A life was saved. Even if that’s never enough for some people.

Rick Moody often says literature should save lives. He’s written that he wants people to feel about literature “the way they feel about “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles, like their lives were changed by it in some way.“

Rick Moody’s first novel, Garden State, was published exactly twenty years ago. 1992. In those 20 years, there’ve been 11 books—novels, stories, novellas, a memoir—4 albums, and so many essays and columns and blogs that, in the shorthand of texting, it’s TMTC: too many to count.

But talk about lives changed!

We’ve met Alice and Dennis and Lane and their bad parents and good music and New York City and sex and drugs.

We’ve met Ben and Janey and Jim and Elena, Paul, Wendy and Mikey and sex and drugs in an ice storm.

We’ve met Hex and Billie and the bathtub. And sex. And drugs.

Vanessa Meandro and the Mormons in Las Vegas and sex and money and drugs.

The James Dean Garage Band and “a guy from Massapequa” and rock and roll and sex and drugs.

And poor little rich boy Wilkie Ridgeway Fahnstock. And gangs at McDonalds and the Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal, which obviously means no sex, but lots of drugs.

And we’ve met Dr. Van Deusen and his paranoia on Long Island where modern architecture is part of the conspiracy, and in conspiracies, there’s no sex or drugs.

And we’ve met Kevin Lee writing a story for—quote—“one of those tits and lit mags.” Do I need to say it? Sex and drugs.

This summer I finally read The Four Fingers of Death and met Montese Crandall and his sick wife and “The Crawling Hand” that hurls from Mars, crashes in the Arizona desert and—this hand without a body—crawls through the heartbroken wasteland that is America, infecting people with a flesh-eating virus. Sex? Not so much. I mean, the Crawling Hand is missing its middle finger.

Here’s a sentence and a half from the novel:

He’d tasted civilization. And he’d found that it consisted of large helpings of desperation, petroleum by-products, fat substitutes, sweeteners, sewage storage issues, stolen and stripped automobiles, vapor trails, good intentions, bad follow-through, selfishness, red itchy eyes, sentimentality, mold, poor logical reasoning, halfhearted orgasms, advertising, household pests, regrets, mendacities, thorns, haberdasheries, computer programming, lower-back pain, xenophobia, legally binding arbitration, cheesy buildup …

As you can hear in that half sentence, it’s clear why Rick Moody has been heralded as one of the icons of a distinctly American style: a dry, uninflected, laconic minimalism. Not.

I said that Civil War soldiers wore pork pie hats and that Rick Moody believes heart and soul in the live-or-die urgency of telling stories. His readers, and I am passionately one of them, will follow Rick Moody’s big, brave, fast-beating heart into whatever fictions, whichever Lands of Truth, he takes us.

With him fiercely waving his Buster Keaton, Gene Hackman, Lester Young hat, what will be Rick Moody’s battle cry? I think we can find it in On Celestial Music, Moody’s brilliant, argumentative, nerdy and lovely new collection about music (and, yes, there’s some sex and drugs). Our Rick Moody battle cry is the title of the final essay.:

"Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!”

Ladies and gentlemen and haberdashers, how about a drum roll for Rick Moody?

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