Bark, by Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf, 192 pages)
At the start of Lorrie Moore’s new book of short stories, it is noted that “selected stories” in the collection first appeared elsewhere, in publications ranging from The New Yorker to The Paris Review. Elemental math, however, reveals the number selected to be six, and there are only seven stories in the book. So, a more accurate notation would be that “most” of these stories have appeared elsewhere, or, “If you’re well read, chances are you’ve seen these already.”
Not that that matters. Because Moore is a writer to savor, to read compulsively, like eating potato chips. In the lingo of Lay’s, bet you can’t read just one. She’s America’s Alice Munro, minus the Nobel and limited-edition $5 coin. She’s also funnier, and edgier, and her stories fly by, like droll cards in an automatic shuffler. She will not, however, win the merry sunshine award.
“I was pathetically, heartbrokenly attached to sad, bad marriages even before I’d ever been out on a date,” Moore once told New York magazine. A later divorce of her own supplied more fodder, and the opening story, “Debarked,” is about a divorced man, Ira, navigating his way through a new relationship. (Ira’s former wife, when complaining of his rough manner with people, used to say, “You bark at them,” therein the title.) The new woman that he is pursuing is a divorcee named Zora. (“That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew. He had to lie down.”) Zora has a teenaged son, Bruno, with whom she has a bizarrely physical relationship.
Moore, too, has had a teenager in the house, and she nails the experience of living with teenagers with a carpenter’s precision, as she does the mechanics of divorce: “Poor little Bekka, now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off.”
But while doomed relationships loom large in Moore’s work, not all these stories revolve around divorces. “The Juniper Tree” is about a woman coping (though not well) with the death of a friend. “Foes” is about a married couple attending a formal dinner in Washington, D.C. — “an ostentatious company town built on a marsh — a mammoth, pompous chit-ridden motor vehicle department run by gladiators” — and a perspective-changing conversation that occurs there.
In “Wings,” the longest and most compelling of the stories, a hard-luck musician, whose financial strategies now include buying sheets of Forever stamps as investments, befriends a lonely elderly man who once was a philosopher. “Terrible world. Great sky. That always seemed the gist,” Milt says.
Things end badly for Milt, though, and the endings that don’t leave you depressed may leave you unsettled. The closest thing to fun is the last story, the original one, titled “Thank You for Having Me.” In it, a mother and teenaged daughter attend the (second) wedding of the daughter’s former babysitter. The bride’s first husband is there, too, as both musician and best man. In this, Moore’s many talents — philosopher, curmudgeon, storyteller and sardonic wit — converge brilliantly as she muses on the usefulness of weddings, which “give balance to wakes and memorial services.”
“I have seen a soccer mom become a rhododendron with a plaque, next to the soccer field parking lot, as if it had been watching all those matches had killed her. I had seen a brilliant young student become a creative writing contest, as if it were all that writing that had been the thing to do him in. … So let a babysitter become a bride again.”
Here are stories of such incandescence that they still startle the second time they’re read. If you’ve never read Moore, Bark is a fine introduction. But be prepared to read everything else she’s written.
A+ —Jennifer Graham