I discovered Lorrie Moore in the University of Georgia infirmary in 1989—that is, I found her short story “You’re Ugly, Too” in the pages of the New Yorker I was reading in the waiting room. The story made me forget the sinus infection that brought me there, and made me laugh, as when one of the characters, a college student, says to her professor, “ ‘Maybe I sound whiny to you . . . but I simply want my history major to mean something.’ ” The professor says, “ ‘Well, there’s your problem’ . . . and, with a smile, she showed the student to the door.” “You’re Ugly, Too” was included in Moore’s second story collection, Like Life (1990); a previous collection, Self Help, was published in 1985. She has also written three novels, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1984), Anagrams (1986), and The Gate at the Stairs (2009).
Moore’s masterwork to date, though, is the collection Birds of America (1998). All of the stories in Birds are so good, heartbreaking and hilarious, but one bears special mention: “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” which stands out even in such company. The characters are not named; from the moment the baby is discovered to have cancer, they have only their roles to play: Mother, Husband, Radiologist, Surgeon. Amid even this horror, though, is more humor—of a kind. When chemotherapy is prescribed, the mother thinks, “In her other life before this day, she had been a believer in alternative medicine. Chemotherapy? Unthinkable. Now, suddenly, alternative medicine seems the wacko maiden aunt to the Nice Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment. How quickly the old girl faints and gives way, leaves one just standing there. Chemo? Of course: chemo! Why by all means: chemo.”
All of this is to say that Moore is an amazing writer. She will tear the heart from your chest, make you shout with laughter and shudder with self-recognition. Ever since that first, fortuitous find in the infirmary, I have thrown myself on every one of her books as on a grenade, and have been gratifyingly exploded by each—except this most recent one, Bark, which I first thought (and hoped) would be about dogs. Lorrie Moore and dogs are two of my favorite things. But there’s only one dog in Bark (one too-preciously named Cat), and not nearly enough of the richness of her previous novels and story collections. There is something unfinished or not quite ripe about Bark. I read it twice, trying to love it, but have finally made up my mind to merely admire it instead, and to wish that it had perhaps undergone one or two more revisions and some deepening.
Moore’s best stories generally are her longer ones, because without ample context Moore’s sharp wit can seem flippant and her eccentric, suffering characters simply odd. In Bark, “Juniper Tree” at thirteen pages is a good example. The women in the piece are inscrutable and unappealing. One of them, in fact, is dead. Robin appears as a ghost, and she says to her friends that they mustn’t hug her. “Everything’s a little precarious,” she explains, “between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week. This scarf’s the only thing holding my head on.” At the conclusion, Robin pushes a pie into her own face, “more meringue than lemon, I’m afraid,” which is descriptive of the book as a whole. Moore’s usual tart sweetness is missing in this one. We get only the surreal fluff on top.
Length fails to make the difference, though, in “Wings,” the longest piece in the collection; even given its forty-nine pages, the characters remain brittle and unlikable. “Wings” is a hat tip to Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove, in which a betrothed and impoverished couple contrives to separate a wealthy and conveniently ailing heiress from her money. KC and Dench are Moore’s scheming protagonists. KC is a failed singer, as so many Moore characters are failed-something-or-others, but Dench is a failed human being. He is a flashy but uncommitted musician whose source of income is mysterious. Maybe his mother is sending him money? Maybe he is selling drugs? KC comes to hope he is selling drugs, and wishes he would do better at it, because when the money dries up, Dench’s career consists of mooching off KC and making cruel and unfathomable remarks. Dench seems to spend the entire story in bed, not even able to fetch his own coffee, so it’s on a coffee run/dog walk that KC meets Milt, an old man living in a fabulous house. Unsurprisingly, Dench smells an opportunity. “He’s probably loaded,” Dench says, “And gonna keel soon.” KC becomes friends with—and caretaker to—Milt, and when he dies, she reaps the obvious reward, at which point the story concludes with her complete transformation to philanthropist, which is a relief after the cynicism of her life with Dench, but not entirely convincing.
Though the plot of “Wings” does not really dazzle, the language does. On the first page, the couple lie together in bed and KC watches the trees outside their window, “the high branches nuzzling in the late March breeze, speaking tree to tree of the thrilling weather.” Later she reflects on her rented house (something is rotting in the attic), her soulless boyfriend, and her dog Cat, concluding, “They were all carnies at the close of Labor Day.” When she and Milt are on a picnic, they have “cheese sandwiches and club soda and difficult peaches: one had to bite sharply into the thick fuzzed skin of them to get to the juice.” “Difficult Peaches” would make a good title for this story, or for the book, since it serves as a metaphor for what is challenging and rewarding here: a tough, almost off-putting exterior with occasional juiciness, even sweetness, within.
“Debarking” (forty-two pages long) offers us a more agreeable although wholly pathetic protagonist. Ira is recently divorced and not doing so well. He can’t get his wedding ring off, or so he claims; actually it came off once while he bathed, “but the sight of his denuded finger, naked as a child’s, had terrified him and he had shoved the ring back on.” He sets fire to the tuxedo he’ d worn at his wedding, and the fire department has to come put it out. He has a pre-teen daughter who is “full of rage at the incompetent waitstaff that life had hired to take and bring her order,” and who fires barbs at him such as “You see, that’s one of the things Mom didn’t like about you.” Worst of all, he starts dating Zora, a pediatrician who creates wooden sculptures of naked boys and who has an inappropriate relationship with her sullen teenage son Bruno. When Ira and Zora and Bruno all have dinner together, Zora and Bruno play footsie under the table, and then, while Ira does the dishes, wrestle each other in the living room. “He was dating a tenth grader now,” Ira realizes. “Even in tenth grade he’ d never done that.”
Moore is not an overtly political writer, but the run-up to the Iraq war is in the background of this story, and the attacks of September 11th and even the scandal at Abu Ghraib all feature in the book, giving the milder discontents and tragedies of the stories more menace, and also adding some dark humor. For example, Ira has two signs in his yard, war is not the answer and jenkins painting is the answer. He comes home from unsatisfactory dates with Zora, fixes himself a drink, and sits down to watch the bombing on tv, “Night bombing, so you could not really see”—not unlike the wholesale destruction of Ira’s own life, which he cannot understand or clearly see his way out of.
He also claims that the war is one of the reasons he can’t let Zora go, “can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness.” Ira’s best friend Mike says, “You shouldn’t use people as human shields,” and then pauses to reconsider. “Or—I don’t know—maybe you should.” Because of course we do use other people as shields against loneliness and fear, but Ira has lost the shield of his marriage, and unwisely snatched at the first inadequate replacement to come along. Zora will never be any comfort to him, but as in many of Moore’s stories, there is a stalwart friend nearby. The most touching moment of the story is when Ira says, “ ‘I can’t believe I just asked you to hold my hand’ . . . but Mike had already taken it.”
In “Paper Losses,” Kit also has such a friend, Jan, and the unraveling marriage that is typical of Moore’s stories. The story moves briskly along, with Jan’s wry commentary throughout. “All husbands are space aliens,” she says, and “There’s no such thing as men. . . . Every man is different. The only thing they have in common is—well—a capacity for horrifying violence.” Kit’s husband proves the point, serving her with divorce papers and “suggesting their spring wedding anniversary as the final divorce date. Why not complete the symmetry? he wrote.” As prelude to the divorce, Kit and Rafe go with their children on a Caribbean vacation, which is every bit as excruciating as you might expect, and wonderfully evoked. At the spa, Kit goes for a massage, and while she weeps facedown onto the “sad massage hut carpet,” the masseur puts hot stones on her back. Each stone loses its warmth, “until she could no longer feel it even there on her back, and then its removal was like a discovery that it had been there all along: how strange to forget and feel it only then, at the end.” This is one of the better metaphors for a failed marriage I’ve ever heard, as is Kit’s mourning the loss of “the sweet animal safety of night after night,” even while she acknowledges that her marriage had become more like “being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle.”
This story and the last in the collection are the most Moore-ish in their well-turned, deeply considered nuance. “Thank You for Having Me” is set at a wedding in the country, where the bride’s first husband Ian plays music while his former wife takes a new spouse. The title comes from the inscription on Ian’s T-shirt, which the main character, the nameless mother of fifteen-year-old Nickie—the bride is Nickie’s former babysitter—finds “remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful.” This is the most upbeat story in the collection by far, which is to say that it is melancholy and briefly fraught with peril, but everyone tries hard to look on the bright side and there is dancing at the end.
One of Moore’s only faults as a prose stylist is that all of her characters speak with the same arch and overeducated wit, even the children and, in this case, a wedding-crashing motorcycle gang, whose leader fires his gun into the air and demands to speak to the bride: “I have a firearms license,” he says, “and those were blanks and this is self-defense because our group here has an easement that extends just this far into this driveway. Also? We were abused as children and as adults and moreover have been eating a hell of a lot of Twinkies.” But if you can get past the too-clever cleverness, you can be rewarded by the story’s gems as well: Ian, who has seemed unfazed by his role—his demotion from groom to entertainer—seizes his chance to move back into the spotlight, “trotting slowly toward [the biker] with the chair over his head, crying the yelping cry of anyone who was trying to be a hero at his ex-wife’s wedding.” And aren’t we all?
All the stories here, even those that are less satisfying, have these moments of ringing truth and humor. In “Foes,” we attend a fund-raising dinner in D.C., and the main character describes the city as an “ostentatious company town built on a marsh—a mammoth, pompous chit-ridden motor vehicle department run by gladiators.” In “Referential,” the mother of a mentally ill man gives up ornament, although not hope: “Once her son had been stripped and gowned and placed in the facility, she, too, removed her necklaces, earrings, scarves—all her prosthetic devices, she said to Pete, trying to amuse.” And in the otherwise too-cryptic “Subject to Search,” one character says to another that life is like a town after the circus has left:
His face went bright with amusement and drink. “Then what happens to the town?” he asked.
She thought about this. “Oh, there’s a lot of weather,” she said, slowly. “It snows. It thunders. The sun comes out. People go to church and sit in the sanctuary and sometimes they see escaped clowns sitting in the back pews with their white gloves still on.”
“Escaped clowns?” he asked.
“Escaped,” she said. “Sort of escaped.”
“Come in from the cold?” he inquired.
“Come in to sit next to each other.”
In short, although Bark is not Moore’s best, it is still better than almost anything on the shelf. We just have to bite into it harder to get to the juice.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 208 pp. $24.95.