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In 'The Diviners,' chasing after the biggest hit ever

The Diviners
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown, 567 pp., $25.95

Is ''The Diviners" a comedy? If so, it falls somewhere between a comedy of manners and a comedy of situation. Or is it a satire? Yes -- that, too; but warmer and more human than the genre generally allows. In short (which ''The Diviners" determinedly is not), Rick Moody's sixth book of fiction is a literary straddler. The pitfall of satire is moral outrage; that of comedy, cynicism. What lifts ''The Diviners" above the limitations of both genres -- because, most of the time, this novel soars -- are Moody's exuberant prose style and his deeply imagined characters.

The novel's structure is as roomy and expandable as an old-fashioned carpetbag. And this is a good thing, because its plot -- wild, wayward, and knotty -- is in constant motion. It all begins when a second-rate film actor, Thaddeus Griffin, comes to the rescue of his lover, Annabel Duffy, by concocting a ''treatment" for a nonexistent screenplay, to help her placate her oversize boss, New York producer Vanessa Meandro (a.k.a. ''Minivan"). As the novel progresses, more and more characters appear and join in the pursuit of the rumored screenplay, which is eventually inflated into a down-through-the-ages miniseries about the diviners, or dowsers, who locate water. Among the interested parties are a Sikh limo driver hired by Minivan (a former film expert in his own country), Annabel's manic-depressive bicycle-messenger brother, Minivan's alcoholic mother, the CEO of a beverage company that wants to sponsor the miniseries, rival producers in New York and Hollywood, Thaddeus's other lover, his wife, a young woman whom Annabel's brother is suspected of mugging, and more. These characters -- each with his or her own peculiar motivation for pursuing the nonexistent screenplay -- encounter and become involved with one another, or play out pre-existing entanglements. The resulting plot has the breath-stealing swoops, mid-air connections, and surprise returns of a virtuoso performance on the trapeze.

What anchors us, as the novel's headlong action unfolds, is Moody's treatment of his characters. Jonathan Swift called satire ''a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." ''The Diviners" doesn't work that way, and it doesn't allow us to, either. Though they never lose their comic radiance, these characters -- like those of Dickens -- are much more than caricatures. By and large, each chapter is devoted to a single character whose interior life is rendered deeply but naturally by Moody's flexible narrating voice. There is Annabel's belief in the moment of tenderness: ''not a theory, but a genuine probability, like democracy in China or a Middle East peace accord." There is the otherwise world-weary Thaddeus's meditation on the cinematic kiss: ''What does her mouth taste like, and does she close her eyes, is she wearing perfume, and is it a car-crash kiss or is it like the soft rolling of tides over a salt marsh?" There is Rosa Meandro's daily heroism in the throes of colitis: ''She bolts the door, leaving the cat on the other side. She begins to weep as the tremors begin. She weeps for the indignity. She hopes she will not bleed." Despite their large number, we know these characters -- their pasts, their preoccupations, the stories they tell each other. This close to them, we can't laugh at their foibles without laughing at our own.

Funny, fierce, and generous, Moody's maximalist prose gives the writer leeway, and the reader pleasure. Sometimes swashbuckling, sometimes laserlike, he can spin out the absurdity of human behavior in giddy syntactic arabesques, or nail it with a single noun. This genre-bending novel has plenty of room for riffs. Among the things Moody lampoons are sugar, sociolinguistics, reality TV, thirst, rock stars, beauty, doughnuts, blondes, art, and enology. If some of his targets seem too easy, Moody's supple, exuberant language nevertheless makes these set pieces shine. And they're fun, something in short supply these days in literary fiction. Yet perhaps we enjoy even more Moody's quick, precise snapshots of everyday life -- entering Times Square (''the folly of neon everywhere above him now, canyons opening in the downtown direction"); greeting a woman (''He . . . touches her on the bicep, just faintly, a brushing past of the fingertips, like he's the archeologist and she's the intact vase in the peat bog"); looking at a fishbowl (''the little mouth of the goldfish troubles the surface of the water").

The zigzag nature of this novel's narrative arc, as well as the richness of its prose, seems to draw its energy from the writer's own surprise. Halfway through almost any chapter, one has the sense that Moody began it deep inside the world of a single character, much as one might start at the heart of a maze. The challenge, then, is to find -- in the writer's case, to forge -- a way back to the larger world. Each chapter achieves this by means of plot developments that are, to say the least, inventive. Moody does not shrink from coincidence, nor is he afraid of the deus ex machina. Surprise in storytelling -- unlike surprise in life -- involves a one-two punch: the unexpected must, in the next breath, become the inevitable. In this respect, ''The Diviners" occasionally leaves us hanging. But this is a small price to pay for admission to such a wild, exhilarating, ultimately heart-opening ride.

Ann Harleman is the author of a story collection, ''Happiness," and a novel, ''Bitter Lake." She teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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