CLOSING TED MOONEY'S Easy Travel to Other Planets , I remembered reading for the first time J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and James Purdy's 63: Dream Palace. Mooney has different ideas about how we live and feel, and the style to make them seem important. His is an auspicious beginning.
Mooney's title comes from a Cuban matriarch's belief that "the souls of the dead resided comfortably on other planets' and can be contacted on Sunday mornings, but the novel takes place only in the Virgin Islands, Connecticut and New York. The time is the present or the immediate future.
East travel involves principally two young couples, a late middle-aged couple, and a dolphin. The two most urgent of these characters are Melissa, a 29-year-old "vagino-American" marine biologist, and the dolphin, who is named Peter by the experimenters who work with him. Melissa is successfully teaching Peter to speak and respond to language in a half-flooded house on a beach near Nazareth Bay St. Thomas. B page 13 of the novel Melissa and the dolphin are "making love in the shallow water."
Since Easy Travel is mostly about the effects of erotic liaisons, the Melissa-Peter combination is only the most unusual of several.
There's Melissa's zealous non-commitment to Jeffrey, her ex-architect/grade-school-teacher co-vivant in New York. There's the escape-and-seek, live-in affair of their friends Nicole and Diego; she has a TWA pass and flies everywhere to go shopping or get abortions; Diego drives a cab, plays a rock guitar, and remembers Havana. There are also Nona and Richard. Nona is Melissa's 59-year-old mother who is dying of cancer. She is having a return affair with Richard, and the two of them are confirming their love by jointly investing in a stock-car racer to compete in the Fossil Fuel 250.
Because Easy Travel is also a general disjunction in American society, "being . . . thoroughly at the testy mercy of disorderly events," these emotional bondings tend to go nowhere except toward disaster. They become diluted by failures of talk and intention, existential angst, and the belief of the young that all alternatives are available and for unlimited time.
Only Nona and Richard achieve a "larger world," and it will end in a year because her cancer is racing. It is also possible Richard hasn't told his wife and children a committed goodbye.
Intoxicated with the fear of admitting to Diego that she is again pregnant, Nicole steps from his speeding cab into traffic in a New York tunnel. She mistakes his reaching into the car's glove compartment as a search for a weapon. Their seeking and hiding ends.
Melissa and Jeffrey ride a seesaw. Despite her confession about the dolphin, Jeffrey closes his satellite relationship with a gamey married mother of small children. Melissa is unique. "He could very easily fall in love with her all over again. . . All he needed as a little encouragement." He gets it when Melissa says she wants a child by him, but it makes no difference. She returns to the dolphin and St. Thomas, where she experiences the grieving illusion that "there is nothing laborious left to do in the world; it is the sort of world in which night seems a lifetime away." Jeffrey meanwhile has fled her world for Anarctica.
Ted Mooney's waffling couples recall Walker Percy's despairing characters who are unaware of being in despair, or the early lovers of Ernest Hemingway who think things may or may not get better. They provoke speculation. They are real enough to learn from. Their values are new, like some of the drugs they take. But their personal strategies are as sold as the seven deadly sins. Everything is permitted in their relationships. Therefore everything is open, right? Wrong. Melissa tell Jeffrey about her bestiality, which he accepts. But he still can't tell her about Clarice, which she senses anyway. Diego worships Nicole, but he still beats her up. She steals his Walther PPK (which, incidentally, figures throughout the novel) so he won't shoot her. Still she wants to bear his child. The new-value environment of Easy Travel to Other Planets is vitalized by the same confusions psychological fiction has been observing for a hundred years.
Aside from its exposures of character, I think the most intriguing qualities of East Travel are Ted Mooney's various proposals about sensory perception and social condition.
The novel, for example, takes place against a backdrop of international confrontation in Antarctica. Airports swarm with uniforms. War may be ahead but only television newscasters care. The United States is ill with "information sickness." People collapse on the streets with its symptoms -- "bleeding from the nose and ears, vomiting . . . and the desire to touch everything." The president is a high-risk case. Melissa and Jeffrey must regularly assume yoga positions to prevent affliction. Some environments are declared information-free by law.
Throughout the course of the novel, Mooney's characters observe seemingly irrelevant behavior. As Jeffrey awaits Melissa's arrival at an airport (airports count heavily with Mooney), he casually notices that "an Irhman with a bottle of Jameson's in his back pocket had climbed out on one of the hundred flagpoles overlooking the main lobby and was trying to pull down the South African flag." Upon her arrival Mellissa kisses him on the neck, and as they walk away we see a sea turtle mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish, eat it and suffocate. As Nona and Melissa discuss their shuffling love affiars in Nona's garden, Mooney announces that "by planting tomatoes near asparagus, the gardener may, without dangerous chemicals, ward off the asparagus beetle."
Mooney introduces stream of consciousness to technology. And he extends perception to the synchrony that all lovers already know. Jeffrey and Melissa literally can tune in on one another's minds. Mooney obviously knows his dolphins and includes them in his fantasies about the sensory. An entire chapter of Easy Travel to Other Planets is told from Peter's point of view. Much of the dolphin's ability to perceive and abstract resides in his skin surfaces, and he attributes the loss of parts of the Nelnu heroic dolphin legends to ancient changes in ocean temperatures. Memories and transmissions failed.
Like Carl Sagan, Mooney speculates about sentience around us, but closer to home. Dolphins, he tells us, "are students of the sonic, the tidal, and the gravitational. Through ear and skin, the dolphin receives forty million bits of such information per second and organizes them spontaneously into a changing musical replica of the world. Some of this music is useful; some is not."
What Mooney does with the word "blue" may be only an inside joe. It appears in the novel -- blue lizard, blue yardstick, blue flowers, blue shoe soles -- at least 31 times. Possibly the key is the title of a blue-covered book read by a professor next to Melissa on her last and decisive trip to St. Thomas. It's called The Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena . Or more likely, Mooney is jabbing William Gass in the ribs about Gass' theories on the significance of the color blue in literature.
Some of Mooney's accessory diversions -- his fragments on "Use of the Ray Gun," "Time Measured by the Clapping of Hands," and his yard about Freud's dog Fritz -- are not only irrelevant but impudent. Mooney has a big bag of tricks. He wants to do them all in his first novel. It's unnecessary. He writes elegant sentences. He understands human motives. His ideas are large.