Fiction - Human comedy

The Diviners

Rick Moody <em>Faber & Faber, 567pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0571229468

Rick Moody is chiefly known for two things: the film that was made of one of his novels, The Ice Storm, and the outstandingly hostile review his last book, The Black Veil, got from the critic Dale Peck.

This must be quite an annoying position for a writer to be in. Moody's new novel is a blow struck for literature against the inanities of the entertainment biz, with an incidental sideswipe against critics, who are seen as part of the same thing. (I wish, mate.)

In the preamble, actually titled "Opening Credits and Theme Music", Moody's eye follows the sunrise around the world, on a day in September 2000, from Los Angeles across to Asia and Europe and then New York, seat of the action. "It's morning! Morning is hopeful, uncomplicated, and it scales mountaintops, as it scales all things . . . Light upon schools of Pacific marine life, light upon sharks, light upon tuna and other harvestibles . . . Light upon the Volcano Islands of Japan . . ."

The passage is a tour de force, but never quite generates the awe you feel it means to. The glances at the world's trouble spots reveal little, and I am not sure about the "conscripted young men from Bombay and Calcutta" serving in Kashmir. Isn't the Indian army a volunteer force? And try this: ". . . light upon the pigeons of Trafalgar, and light upon the pickpockets of Piccadilly Circus, light upon the orderly shops of the Fulham Road, light upon the bobbies and light upon the lorries and the black taxis, light upon the disenchanted royal family". It has to be a tourist snapshot, perhaps, but it needs to be a little more just-so.

Still, the cumulative impression is not bad, and Moody has got our attention.

In New York, an elderly Italian-American lady is having big trouble on the lavatory, fearful her insides are going to drop out. The reason is not hard to find, as she grabs a bottle of malt liquor from the cabinet and drains it. Eventually, her daughter calls round and drags her off to rehab. The daughter, Vanessa, known to her employees as "Minivan" on account of her build, is an independent film producer. When not stuffing her face with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, she is trying to get a big- budget TV mini-series off the ground.

Nobody makes mini-series any more - these days it's all reality shows - but the buzz about this project is huge. What Vanessa doesn't know is that the treatment, a ludicrous saga about a dynasty of water-diviners, beginning in the days of Attila the Hun and ending with the foundation of Las Vegas, was cobbled up and submitted anonymously by two of her associates, her PA Anna-bel and the action-film star and would-be producer Thaddeus Griffin.

The buzz only happens because of a mix-up in- volving Annabel's manic-depressive brother Tyrone, once an artist, now a bike messenger. Annabel asks a talent agent to send in the treatment through Tyrone's firm, but the boss, for a bet, sends both Tyrone and another messenger, Spicer, to make the pick-up, without tell-ing them it's a race. The boss's money is on Spicer, a vague old man with corns and Parkinson's, who has to walk and take the subway.

New York being New York, Tyrone, though a fleet young cyclist, is held up by various altercations en route. Spicer, easily distracted, stopping for coffee, telling strangers his life story, nevertheless keeps pulling ahead. The race, described deadpan, is another tour de force, and a comically successful one. Tyrone reaches International Talent and Media, Worldwide Plaza, only to be told that some old guy already picked up the package.

But forgetful Spicer misdelivers it to another agency, because that is where he usually goes. Despite Vanessa's name on the envelope, the agent cannot resist taking a look and working out how to get a piece of the action - by casting one of his pop stars as the love interest - before he gives Vanessa a ring. So the word is out, competitive egos are in play, and the buzz begins.

We wonder where all this is going. Silly us. It's a shaggy-dog story, going everywhere and nowhere. The rule with most film and TV projects is that they never do reach the screen. Meanwhile, Tyrone goes on the run from the cops because someone who looks like him (black, and riding a bike) has battered a girl unconscious on the street with a brick. Oddly, she was on her mobile to Tyrone at the time, but, being unconscious, she cannot clear his name. In Massachusetts he encounters a local terrorist group which plans to start the revolution by firebombing branches of Krispy Kreme. Nobody knows what even more absurdly small beer this will look come 11 September next year.

Film-star Griffin goes to San Francisco to ask "the greatest wine writer in history", Randall Tork, noted for his fine style and withering critiques - "These Chardonnays have the mouthfeel of neglected vaginas begging to be brought beseechingly out of retirement, musty, undeodorised, sentimental" - to work on the idiotic script. Tork, though a rampant culture snob, is so flattered he agrees, especially if his boyfriend can be cast.

Vanessa's mother skips rehab and goes to Florida, fascinated by the ongoing business of the hanging chads. Vanessa goes location-scouting and leaves orders for her rich-girl associate Madison to find the firm a better office, somewhere downtown. Madison finds one. In the World Trade Center. (Boom boom.)

A low point is the 30-page synopsis of an episode of a Buffy-type television show everyone is watching, The Werewolves of Fairfield County. This drags. But it does say something about TV, and at least it brings together Moody's numerous disparate characters as we see them tune in nationwide. And elsewhere, the ever-branching sub-plots of the novel give a fine conspectus of the human comedy.