I greeted Rick Moody’s new novel, The Four Fingers of Death (Little, Brown & Co., $26), with high expectations. I’m a great fan of Moody’s early work, particularly his novel The Ice Storm (Little, Brown & Co., 1994) and the short stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (Black Bay Books, 1995), but I’ve been disappointed with his recent efforts and didn’t even finish his last novel, The Diviners (Little, Brown & Co., 2005). However, I thought The Four Fingers of Death might be a welcome return to form for Moody. It’s a comic novel with a high concept, and the book is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut—all good signs.
Fingers of Death is a sprawling satire that takes place in 2025 in Arizona. Protagonist Montese Crandall is an eccentric writer who specializes in one-sentence short stories and makes a modest living selling baseball cards (specifically of athletes with artificial limbs, this being the future, after all). His wife, Tara, has an online gambling addiction and a new set of lungs, courtesy of a recent transplant. In need of money for medical bills and gambling debts, Crandall enters into a series of chess games with the mysterious D. Tyrannosaurus. The stakes? If Crandall wins, he gets to write the novelization of the 2025 remake of a Z-grade horror movie from 1963, The Crawling Hand. If Tyrannosaurus wins, he gets one of Crandall’s baseball cards.
I don’t think I’m spoiling things by letting it slip that the bulk of The Four Fingers of Death is Crandall’s novelization of The Crawling Hand. For the record, the original was a real movie, viewable on Hulu.com. And yes, it’s a cringe-worthy melodrama with cheap effects and awful acting. In Crandall’s version, nine astronauts go to Mars. All perish, although one of the astronaut’s arms makes it back to Earth, minus a finger. Horror and mayhem ensue, along with numerous attempts at biting satire. Moody seems to be swinging at a Pynchon-esque fence, but just can’t hit it out of the ballpark.
There’s lots of good writing in The Four Fingers of Death, along with echoes of Vonnegut and hints of Joseph Heller. Sadly, not everything works. At more than 700 pages, the book feels bloated, and too much of the humor feels forced. It works best when Moody focuses on Crandall and his wife; as a novella, The Four Fingers of Death might have worked better. As a novel, it’s ambitious—just not stellar.