[Little, Brown and Company; 2010]

by Eamon O’Connor

Rick Moody’s sci-fi satire The Four Fingers of Death is, by my calculation, somewhere between one and four books, although if we are to believe our futuristic fictional narrator Montese Crandall, the count may well be higher. (See page 321 in the hardcover edition.)

Crandall, who introduces us to the “novelization” of an imagined remake of a real B-movie, is apparently in the practice of whittling his voluminous prose down to its barest essence, condensing hundreds of pages into a single sentence. If one were to perform a similar exercise on the hefty mass bound between Moody’s covers, the process might yield the following sentence, which can be found somewhere towards the middle of the book: “The things in this world that cause decay, the things that break down the dead, they are not modest in their supply.”

Although this sentence does not showcase the novel at its wittiest or its most poignant, it does help to focus the scope of this book-within-a-book that’s encyclopedic breadth of knowledge and social satirical impulses can sometimes result in a haphazard kind of sprawl, as dizzying and perversely pleasurable to dwell in as the southwestern desert in which it is set. Indeed, there is very little in this book that could fairly be characterized as “modest.” To unfairly characterize the book then, The Four Fingers of Death a comic novel about infection, illness, and terminal decay.

Moody renders the American West of the future as a place that has suffered massive socio-economic shock, a junkyard that gathers the dusty detritus of a once-great empire. It is in this context that we meet a string of characters who are afflicted with exotic bacterial infections, degenerative lung conditions, or various forms of contagious moral maladies. In this nested doll of a novel, Moody succeeds in imagining his way into the psychologies of the infected. Although the satire doesn’t always prove to be as insightful as one might hope, the novel is an enjoyable and empathetic reading of those struggling against inevitable demise, of one sort or another.