Right away in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, I get a sense of what the author thinks of New Canaan, Connecticut — the novel’s setting: It is “the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs. In the wealthiest state in the Northeast. In the most affluent country on earth.” And he places us in time: “Three years shy of that commercial madness, the bicentennial.” Okay — 1973. And the next paragraph is a long list of things that don’t yet exist in that time: “No answering machines. And no call waiting. No Caller ID. No compact disc recorders or laser disks or holography or cable television or MTV.” The list goes on and on, but you get the picture — a very dramatic picture. I remember 1973 quite well but this novel plunks me back in that time so vividly that I almost have to remind myself that over forty years have passed since then. Moody does this in many ways throughout the book, but perhaps most effectively through his references to the music of the time — and not just the top ten pop songs but some of those songs that make me smile and think, wow, I forgot all about that one. Helen Ready singing Delta Dawn, Cat Stevens singing anything. Watch and listen to Delta Dawn here:
Turns out I’m close in age to the teenage protagonist, Paul Hood, who narrates this story of a disastrous ice storm which is the backdrop for his family’s implosion. Of course his parents’ marriage has been rocky for some time — his father, Benjamin Hood is having an affair with a neighbor and his mother, Elena, cannot get enough self-help books to find her way out of a deep depression. In the Midwest, in 1973, I didn’t know of anybody’s parents having “key parties” — where the men drop their car keys into a bowl as they walk in the door and at the end of the night, the women choose a set of keys randomly from that bowl. Here is the man she will go home with, have sex with, no strings attached. It might have happened. In New Canaan, in 1973, we learn, key parties happen all the time. And all this sexual promiscuity trickles down to the children — even the pre-teens are experimenting with alcohol and sex when they’re not playing with dolls, eating junk food and watching endless television. Now that seemed very familiar to me.
Okay, the book is depressing. No doubt about it. But, too, it’s darkly funny. It begins like this: “So let me dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up.” So, you’re expecting humor but right away Moody hits you with other emotions: nostalgia, embarrassment, fear of aging, desperation. Anyone who has been through adolescence can relate to Paul Hood’s all-consuming crush on the most popular girl in school. And in the early seventies, in the middle of the sexual revolution, we were all still trying to figure out how to deal with “free love” and wanting all relationships to be “relevant.” It wasn’t the beginning of married couples having affairs, but it sure became a whole lot easier, after birth control became readily available and cheaper than it had been before. The collective consciousness was open and searching. Or so it seemed at the time.
The Hood family members are all searching too, trying to make sense of their comfortable suburban upper class lives. They’re all pretty selfish, kind of hard to like — except for the voice of the teenage boy, Paul, Rick Moody’s voice, which catches everyone with their pants down. Their individual self-absorption and petty concerns are magnified by the enormity of the ice storm, wreaking havoc and ultimately real disaster in their cushy neighborhood. As Mother Nature is powerful enough to destroy life through major events, ice storms and hurricanes and mudslides, so too is our flawed human nature capable of destroying lives and relationships and families. But, like the cleaning up and moving on that inevitably happens after natural disasters, human beings are resilient and can do the same.
In the Afterword to my edition of The Ice Storm is an essay by Rick Moody entitled: The Creature Lurches from the Lagoon: More Notes on Adaptation, I discovered that this novel was made into a movie. Of course, I couldn’t wait to see it and really enjoyed reading the authors thoughts about that process. The thing that most interested me was that the film, by Ang Lee, has an original score. What? I wasn’t going to hear all those old seventies tunes? But I trust the author when he says that the score, though it sounds kind of Eastern (lots of gamelan in it), it is mournful and for him brings up “waves of regret about the past.”
So I watched it. I recommend it. But read the book first, especially if 1973 is stored in some of your own memory synapses. But, be warned. You may just be tempted to dust off some of your old vinyl.