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Severed Thumbs Up For 'The Four Fingers Of Death'

In his dense, provocative and often hilarious ninth book, Rick Moody takes a sly, Swiftian approach to sci-fi, serving up a goofy B-movie-style space opera.

Here's the setup: Montese Crandall of Rio Blanco, Ariz., a hack writer whose specialty is paring down prose to one-sentence stories (remember Moody's Twitter short story?), has won the chance to write the novelization of the screenplay for The Four Fingers of Death, a 2025 remake of the cheesy 1963 horror film The Crawling Hand.

This is satire with a sobering aftertaste. In the course of his 700-plus-page extravaganza, dedicated to the late Kurt Vonnegut, Moody finds a way to comment on everything from the economic decline brought on by NAFTA to professional baseball's "enhanced" players, self-help books (a marital advice book, Slaughtering Intimacy, prescribes proto-hominid sex, closer to cannibalism than love), the corroding effects of the Internet and the increasingly crass entertainment industry.

The first half of the novelization, told as a series of blog posts by astronaut Jed Edwards, describes a 2025 NASA mission to Mars gone horribly awry. Several of the nine astronauts exhibit signs of "interplanetary disinhibitory syndrome." Jed develops a huge crush on Capt. Jim Rose, which leads to an expansive (and messy) zero-gravity sex scene. One astronaut goes berserk and mutilates Jed's hand. The missing digits are reattached, minus the middle finger. (Ta-da! The four-fingers motif.)

Shortly after landing on Mars, an astronaut with a top-secret agenda takes off to search for a fatal bacillus that might be used by the military for germ warfare. M. thanatobacillus is a hemorrhagic infectious agent endemic to Mars that causes a slow-moving death. "Parts of the body may continue to function, may continue to have muscular capabilities, after heart and brain function has stopped," Moody writes. Cue ominous music, as Moody sets the scene for the second half of Crandall's novelization, when the murderous four-fingered hand, oozing with M. thanatobacillus infection, survives a crash landing in the Sonoran desert of Arizona.

Moody populates his compulsively realized futuristic universe with scads of idiosyncratic characters, from all nine astronauts, their families back on Earth and their NASA handlers, to a weirdo like Bix Rafferty, a desert rat who keeps himself dosed up on "non-drowsy formula, mescal, energy beverages and Sea Breeze" and becomes the first Earthling to encounter the four-fingered hand.

The challenge for Moody is to maintain comic momentum while allowing for so many spiraling digressions and voluble characters. (Even the severed hand warbles on about the joys of creeping, "its most beloved task.") There are, indeed, moments of tedium. Moody frames the book with Crandall's interminable chess game with D. Tyrannosaurus, and he does go on about duct tape. But his energy and sheer inventiveness make The Four Fingers of Death an original and exhilarating read.

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Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.