The late John Gardner wrote that every story fits one of two types: A stranger comes to town. A character goes on a journey.
Douglas Watson sends his character, a moody fellow named Moody Fellow, on a journey—not physical but spiritual. The plot follows our hero from his earliest days spent dreaming about elves to college, where he joins the campus antiwar group and promptly falls in love with all the girls involved. After college, Moody delivers coffee beans and plays piano for performance artists. Eventually he meets Kate, a girl in a chapeau, who works at a stationary store. They fall in love. They move in together. They play tennis and scrabble. They live happily ever after … right up to the point that Moody dies.
Moody’s whole life, like many of ours, boils down to one thing: the search for love. For much of his teenage and college years, that search proves unsuccessful. Sure, he has girlfriends, kisses said girlfriends, even loses his virginity under a “big white moon that shone down on the lawn like a stage light.” Yet the love he thinks he has found goes unreciprocated. His girlfriends all cheat on him, in fact. Yet after every romantic mishap, Moody doesn’t blame the girl. He feels the cheating “was not about her at all but [was] instead about him, a judgment on him.”
The chronically rejected among us surely identify.
As Moody meets strange and revealing characters, his journey sometimes takes on the feel of historical allegory. Take, for instance, the performance artist Amanda, whose Medusan beauty causes men to drop dead when they gaze fully upon her face. We find Chad, a middle-aged aspiring artist who finally finds success, but also finds it beginning to sink him into fears of failure. However minor these characters, they play key roles in helping Moody finally find love … and a love that responds in kind. Our hero will die—ah, don’t we all?—but as Watson writes, “Moody got to go out on a high note.”
Watson pens a darkly comic novel. Most of the humor comes from omniscient narrators who serve as a tragic Greek chorus, observing action from afar. At times, they act like gods and intervene to make the story they want:
Moody came very close to being murdered by a bolt of lightning. Indeed, we were in the mood to see him killed, but … he hadn’t found love yet, which meant that according to the terms laid out at the beginning of the narrative, he had to be allowed to live a bit longer.
It’s a clever approach to metafiction. Near the end of the novel, shortly before our moody traveler’s death, the narrators hold an exit interview to discuss the job Moody has done as a protagonist:
You’re a nice guy, you have feelings, you occasionally do stuff. Maybe you could have been a little more active, had fewer thoughts, etc., but all in all, you’ve done the job we asked you to do, and we thank you.
The title spoils. We know how the book will end. Moody will find love with Kate, and then he will die. But Watson’s writing keeps a reader asking how? Why? He gives us an interesting de-vice of suspense, really, an ending presented right up front. It’s less whodunit, more howdunit.
This means hard work for Watson. It takes extra effort to keep a reader on his/her toes with the end of a book not in doubt. To accomplish this, the author’s voice rings dry and witty, sardonic and melancholy. His sentences swoop and dip and dive, flying like the improvised piano pieces Moody himself plays throughout the story.
Watson lives in New York City and works as a copyeditor at Time magazine. His first book, The Era Of Not Quite, won the inaugural BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize. That work hints at a time when things are almost. People find themselves almost happy, almost successful, almost able to fall in love, almost able to get what they want—or even know what they want.
Watson does not almost love his characters—he cares for them a great deal, even the most minor. Yet he refuses to make exceptions for them. Moody will experience unrequited love, pain, despair and death.
In short, he will experience life. Life, with all its glory and disappointments.
Watson’s work reminds us that the moment between joy and crushing despair exists briefly. It’s best to enjoy our time and to not wastefully murder it. Closing this book, you don’t know whether to smile or break down in tears, to chuckle at the gallows humor or to be appalled by it.
If you’ve been lucky in your own search for love, this book will make you pull your loved one a little closer, hug them little bit longer.
Brock Kingsley teaches English at Texas Christian University. His work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Junk, The Nervous Breakdown, Pleiades and elsewhere.