I’m trepidatious about writing about Bark, Lorrie Moore’s new book of short stories. If you haven’t read any Lorrie Moore then there’s the whole burden of putting across how damn good she is so people don’t miss out. If you have read her then you might have your own angle on her stories and (with her brilliant repartee ringing in your ears) you’ll find this post dull, a poor representation of Moore’s wit. I’ll aim for the newbies. If you’re already a Moore reader, please write in because there can’t be too much talk about her work.
There are eight stories in Bark. I didn’t love them all equally but I did love them all.
Moore’s characters are often bemused, self-deprecating, on the edges of the action and struggling to pass as normal in a weird world. They are always funny as hell. Moore does funny deeper, darker, smarter than anyone I’ve ever read.
In the first story, Debarking, we meet Ira, a likeable, trying-to-do-the-right-thing, unhappily divorced man. He can’t get his wedding ring off his finger. “Maybe I should cut off the whole hand. And send it to [the ex-wife],” he says to his friend Mike. “She’ll understand the reference.” Mike invites Ira to a dinner party where he meets Zora, a divorced paediatrician who howls with laughter at Ira’s jokes (in what Ira recognises as post-divorce hysteria). They start going out. Zora is beautiful but weird with an intense, slightly creepy relationship with her teenage son:
“Do you feel ready to meet Bruno?” [Zora asks Ira after they’ve slept together.] “I mean he didn’t care for my last boyfriend at all. That’s why we broke up.”
“Really?” This silenced Ira for a moment. “If I left those matters to my daughter I’d be dating a beagle.”
“I believe children come first.” Her voice now had a steely edge.
“Oh yes, yes, so do I,” he said quietly. He felt suddenly paralysed and cold.
Meanwhile, Bekka, Ira’s daughter complains about her mother’s increasingly serious boyfriend:
“I don’t want a stepfather,” Bekka said.
“Maybe he could just live on the steps?” Ira suggested.
The jokes and one-liners come thick and fast (“It was good to date a nudist: things moved right along”) and they are generally quotable and often wise. Here’s Sam, the son of divorcing Kit and Rafe in Paper Losses: “ If dolphins tasted good we wouldn’t even know about their language.” Moore can slip a joke in anywhere, at any time. Here’s Kit having a heart to heart with her friend, Jan:
“Do you think people can be rehabilitated and forgiven?
“Sure! Look at Ollie North!”
“Well he lost the senate race. He wasn’t sufficiently forgiven.”
“But he got some votes, “ Jan insisted.
“Yeah, and now what’s he doing?”
“Now he’s back promoting a line of fire-retardant pyjamas. It’s a life!”
Despite the constant flippancy, Moore’s characters feel real and so do their efforts to be good, to find or to keep love or to just be at home in the world. Her people are funny, but they’re not freaks. They’re just us, with better punchlines.
Many of her stories reference politics. The stories in Bark take aim (generally indirectly) at targets such as the American involvement in Iraq, racism and neo-conservatism. There’s a stunning set piece called Foes in which lovely, self-deprecating Bake McKurty attends a fundraising dinner in Washington D.C. He’s placed next to a strange-looking women who is holding forth on the means by which President Obama won office:
“Your man, Barama, my friend, would not even be in the running if he wasn’t black.”
Now all appetite left him entirely. The food on his plate, whatever it was…went like an abstract painting. His blood pressure flew up. “You know, I never thought about it before but you’re right! Being black really is the fastest, easiest way to get to the White House!”
She said nothing, and so he added, “Unless you’re going by cab, and then, well, it can slow you down a little.”
(This story has a twist in its tail.) I love dinner party stories and Moore does the details deliciously well.
In Wings the main character, K.C., is a 30ish singer living with her loser bandmate/boyfriend. K.C. makes friends with a much older guy, Milt, who lives in the same swanky unneighbourly neighbourhood (it’s the sort of neighbourhood where the typical new dad seems “so old he looks like the kidnapper of his own child”). Milt starts up a free book exchange system in his letterbox in a forlorn and doomed attempt at community. He tells K.C. that he used to have an aptitude for German philosophy, “the gist of which,” he says, “is ‘Terrible world. Great sky.’” K.C. and Milt’s unlikely friendship lurches and lopes on. People aren’t happy about it. There’s a big development. Wings is a dark story (surprise!). Its characters are impressively unsuccessful at ordinary life. The ending is sad. The jokes are brilliant.
Life is too short not to read Lorrie Moore’s short stories. Especially read Bark and Birds of America.
If you want to read a very funny piece about two of the funniest writers alive meeting in an airport for horrible coffee, read Zadie Smith’s On the Road, American Writers and Their Hair.