Ted Mooney, author of inventive novels, is dead at 70

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Ted Mooney, author of inventive novels, is dead at 70
His attention-getting first book, “Easy Travel to Other Planets,” began with dolphin-human sex. The three that followed were comparably offbeat.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Ted Mooney, who opened his first book, in 1981, with a scene of dolphin-human sex and who proceeded to write three other offbeat, inventive novels at roughly 10-year intervals, died March 25 at his home in New York City. He was 70.

His sister, Joan Mooney, who confirmed the death, said he had been having heart problems for some time.

Mooney was an editor at Art in America magazine from 1977 to 2008, and he was known for his steady hand whether working with established art critics or first-time writers. His novels, though, showed a different side, one partial to outlandish yarns that were also literate examinations of a disjointed age.

The first was “Easy Travel to Other Planets.” Its difficult-to-describe plot involves the relationship between a marine biologist named Melissa and a dolphin she is trying to communicate with, as well as a possible nuclear war and a disease called “information sickness,” the treatment for which is to lie flat and “assume the memory-elimination posture.” It went deep into the dolphin mind. “In shallow water,” Mooney wrote, “a dolphin thinks about the danger to his skin, which is twenty times more sensitive than a man’s and which dolphins feel to be the organ of dreams, though they do not sleep.”

Critics liked the incongruous blend.

“Mooney’s originality lies in his ability to describe the present as though it were the surreal future,” Carole Corbeil wrote in her review in The Globe and Mail of Canada. “In his drive to push things to their illogical conclusions, Mooney mixes humor and despair so adroitly that he comes up with strange new desires.”

Mooney’s second novel, “Traffic and Laughter,” was published in 1990. It opened in Southern California — again with a sex scene, though this one involved no dolphins — and roamed to Africa and France. Nuclear weaponry was again included, as were filmmaking, a cuckoo bird and assorted other elements.

“‘Traffic and Laughter’ is a chain reaction of proliferating metaphors that eventually achieve critical mass and explode the book, along with the world,” Douglas Glover wrote in The New York Times.

“This,” he added, “is new-wave literary joke-making at its best — and its most serious.”

“Singing Into the Piano” (1998) was a sprawling meditation on the borderless world of the North American Free Trade Agreement that, yes, began with a sex scene, this one involving two spectators at a speech by a man running for the presidency of Mexico.

“In ‘Singing Into the Piano,’ Ted Mooney engages in a lot of serious speculation about what it means to be a citizen in a free-trade age,” Sarah Kerr wrote, reviewing the book in the Times. “But this speculation occurs against a racy backdrop — a kind of sweet solution to help wash down the castor oil of his main theme.”

Mooney’s most recent book, “The Same River Twice” (2010), involved a French clothing designer, her filmmaker husband and some ceremonial banners smuggled out of the Soviet Union. Carlo Wolff, reviewing the novel in The Boston Globe, called it “a philosophical entertainment doubling as a riveting, unconventional thriller,” one that “explores issues of mutability against fixity, evolution against stasis, art against artifice, and the vexing allure of an affair against the security of marriage.”

In a 1990 interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory now in the archives of San Diego State University, Mooney was asked if the characters in his novels ever surprised him.

“There is not a single day in which I am not surprised to the point of befuddlement by what they do,” he said. “That’s the pleasure. Reacting to the befuddlement, straightening it out, is the responsibility.”

Edward Comstock Mooney was born Oct. 19, 1951, in Dallas and grew up in the Washington suburbs. His parents, Booth and Elizabeth (Comstock) Mooney, were both writers; his father was a speechwriter for and biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson before Johnson became president.

If Ted Mooney’s novels touched on big-picture political themes — global trade, the arms race and so on — that was in part because of his upbringing.

“All during my formative years,” he said in the 1990 interview, “I had people connected with the government coming in through my father’s and mother’s house, talking about these issues. I don’t know. To me these are the sorts of things that one thinks about in our times.”

Mooney graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1969, then spent two years at Columbia University before finishing his bachelor’s degree at Bennington College in Vermont, where he graduated in 1973.

He settled in Manhattan and was hired at Art in America in 1977. Elizabeth Baker was the editor there at the time.

“Ted was a skilled editor from the outset,” she said by email. “He was young, with no track record, but his job application included a photocopy of an article we’d already published, on which he’d red-penciled some constructive editorial changes. The job was his.”

He was soon given the title senior editor. He stayed until the magazine changed ownership in 2008.

“Over the decades, Ted’s literary career never undercut the care and resourcefulness he poured into his editorial activities,” Baker said. “He was thorough and meticulous, while scrupulously maintaining the tone and style of each writer. He worked with established writers whose work he barely touched, as well as beginners he taught how to write.”

Mooney is survived by his sister.

Mooney said that on trips to the Virgin Islands with his parents when he was young, he would swim with dolphins — memories that he tapped for that first novel, with its perceptive, smarter-than-expected animal as a central character. But he credited a dog with setting the novel in motion. A neighbor in his apartment building in Manhattan had a black Labrador retriever named Elmo, a smart and exploratory animal.

“I was sitting at my table and watched my front door open and close,” he told The Associated Press in 1991. “It was Elmo the dog, opening the door with his nose. It made me think about animals walking around, doing things that humans do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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