THE DIVINERS

By Rick Moody

Little, Brown. 567 pp. $25.95

As an artist, Rick Moody has always seemed torn between his avant-garde education -- his teachers included the experimental writers Angela Carter and John Hawkes -- and his more conventional subject matter. His first two novels, Garden State and The Ice Storm, were written with just enough ironic distance to show his postmodern colors, but they were about suburban anomie, one of the most common subjects in American fiction. They read the way Cheever and Updike might have if they'd studied Derrida and Foucault in college, but Moody's novels were tightly controlled to the point of repression, as if he were uncomfortable with his own subject matter. His next novel, however, Purple America, abandoned the irony and unleashed whatever rage Moody had been holding back. Still set in suburbia, it had more emotional and intellectual heft than the earlier books, and Moody, an almost freakishly gifted stylist, opened the novel with the full-blown modernist incantation of a heartbroken adult son bathing his crippled mother.

That was eight years ago, and in the meantime Moody has published only a book of short stories, a dazzling sci-fi novella called The Albertine Notes, and a rather convoluted memoir, The Black Veil, which attempted to conflate his life and family history with a general critique of white guilt for all sorts of political and cultural atrocities. The memoir provoked an infamous scorched-earth essay in the New Republic by the novelist Dale Peck, who declared that Moody was "the worst writer of his generation" and went on to accuse him of everything from comma splices to pointless virtuosity to slavish trendiness. "No doubt Moody is even now at work on a sprawling 'social novel' in the manner of The Corrections," sneered Peck.

At first glance, Moody's ambitious new satire, The Diviners, might look like the fulfillment of Peck's prediction. It's certainly sprawling, weighing in at more than 550 pages, with a huge cast of characters from various levels of society. Chief among them are Vanessa Meandro, a large woman (fond of Krispy Kremes) who owns an indie-film company in New York called Means of Production; Annabel Duffy, an aspiring black filmmaker who works for Vanessa; Thaddeus Griffin, a womanizing film star who is using the company to parlay his fame into artistic respectability; Annabel's brother Tyrone, a gifted but disturbed artist who works as a bicycle messenger; and the Reverend Duffy, a white liberal Congregationalist minister who is Annabel and Tyrone's adoptive father. There are also the wily president of a TV network and his sullen daughter; a Sikh cab driver with a graduate degree in American pop culture; Vanessa's alcoholic mother, who can "hear" cell-phone calls in her head; and a Latin American revolutionary named Eduardo who is really a guy named Sy from Rhode Island.

The thread that links all of them together is a proposed television miniseries about water dowsers, or diviners, that starts with the Mongol hordes, works its way through Gypsies and Mormons, and ends up in Las Vegas. This script, as it happens, doesn't actually exist. As a joke, Thaddeus and Annabel have concocted a fake summary of the project that goes awry because of a mistake by Tyrone's messenger service. As a result, a number of people who have no idea what they're bidding on, including Vanessa, begin to fight over the right to produce the series. And this fraud, which rather pointedly takes place during the post-election shenanigans of the 2000 presidential contest, begins to resonate in unpredictable ways.

The complicated plot, which has as many coincidences and missed connections as a Dickens novel, is not the point of The Diviners, however. A more conventional social novelist -- Tom Wolfe, say -- would have told the whole story in his own, Zola-lite version of the Voice of God, hitting all the plot points, but Moody stays true to his avant-garde roots and buries the plot. He tells the story as a series of mostly brilliant individual set-piece chapters, each one in a different style and each from the point of view of a different character, as if The Bonfire of the Vanities had been written by James Joyce. Thus we get the collapse of the Sikh cab driver's marriage from the point of view of his autistic son, the giddy diary entries of one of Means of Production's development girls as she seduces a hunky Mormon, and Tyrone's return to his father's home in the technical jargon of linguistics.

If you prefer a more straightforward narrative, this might not be the book for you, but if you like watching the smartest kid in the room do his stuff, The Diviners is like a Broadway musical filled with nothing but showstoppers, as Moody performs one bravura set piece after another.

If I wanted to be Peckish about it, I might point out that there's a certain fish-in-a-barrel quality about the targets of Moody's satire: egomaniacal movie stars, the ambitious development girls who sleep with them, funny foreigners who know American pop culture better than Americans, well-meaning and inept liberal clergymen. And if it's intended as a snapshot of The Way We Live Now (or at least The Way We Did, just before Sept. 11), it's a rather narrow slice of American life. But who cares, when the result is as flat-out entertaining as it is here? In my experience, the smartest kid in the room usually can't help himself, and more than that, he's usually the one who feels things more deeply than anybody else.

What saves Moody's virtuosity from pointlessness is his breathtaking empathy with each character, including and maybe even especially the most contemptible ones. Combine that with the fact that, for the first time (in one of his novels, anyway), Moody seems to be really having fun. And if you enjoy literary rivalries, there's even a purely gratuitous and entirely hilarious attack on Dale Peck, in a chapter devoted to a character called Randall Tork, "the greatest wine writer in history," in which Moody does a riotous and pitch-perfect imitation of Peck's slash-and-burn critical style.

Toward the end of the Civil War, the story goes, somebody complained to President Lincoln that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk. Lincoln reportedly said, "Find out what he drinks, and send a barrel to all my other generals." I'm not sure that The Diviners tells me anything I didn't already know about show business or that it really illuminates The Way We Live Now, but it sure is fun to read. If this is pointless virtuosity, then we should find out what Rick Moody's drinking, and let's all have a taste. *

James Hynes is the author of "The Lecturer's Tale" and "Kings of Infinite Space."