By Lorrie Moore
192 pages, $24.95
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
No one is living happily after in Lorrie Moore’s latest story collection – an arresting, irreverent and layered anthology titled, aptly, “Bark.”
All but one of its eight entries appeared previously – four in The New Yorker and one each in The Guardian, Harper’s and The Paris Review. The new story, “Thank You for Having Me,” is (like most of the others) a madcap meditation on life, love, loneliness and the swift passage of time.
“It felt important spiritually to go to weddings: to give balance to the wakes and memorial services,” says the story’s narrator as she and her 15-year-old daughter wend their way to the second wedding of the daughter’s former nanny.
“People shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings there were only funerals … I had turned a hundred Rolodex cards around to their blank sides. So let a babysitter become a bride again. Let her marry over and over. So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.”
Should this render us thoughtful, never fear: We will soon be at the nuptials themselves, with music by the nanny’s first husband and our narrator musing: “The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding. Why hadn’t I thought of that?”
Moore plays us in this manner throughout “Bark,” a title that manifests itself in myriad ways here – in “Thank You for Having Me” as “the outer bark of the brain – and it does look like bark …”
Moore also references bark on a preface page – once as tree bark, twice in association with dogs – although the only actual dog in “Bark” is a canine named “Cat” whose owner, KC, is the protagonist of perhaps the best story here, “Wings.”
Like most of Moore’s characters, KC fits no general mold – and “Wings,” like most of Moore’s stories, is less a tale than a study of the countless ways Moore uses words and phrases, rarely sticking to the norm, while mesmerizing with her ability to develop people, places and things in a single paragraph. Or two.
KC – whose mother’s last words had been “Marry well” – is a songwriter living with “Dench,” who is charming, a bit of a grifter, probably a dope dealer:
“Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150 percent jerk.”
KC hopes, at first, that Dench is not a dealer, then begins to “feel OK” about it. (“At least he did something.”) Soon she imagines herself begging (and here note “bark” as weed): “Just a little skunk, darling. Just a little pocket rocket, some sparky bark or kick stick, just a bit of wake and bake …”
As for her own work, KC realizes, “Its terribleness eluded her. Her lyrics weren’t sly or hip or smoky and tough but the demure and simple hopes of a mouse. She’d spent a decade barking up the wrong tree – as a mouse!”
Barking again, but in an increasingly fascinating context as KC meets an elderly gentleman living in a house – with wings. It is he who – when KC tells him Cat’s “bark is worse than his bite” – counters the argument: “No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.”
It is he who will also say, of KC, “There’s a way you have of wafting in and hitting the sounds of the words rather than the words themselves …”
We see where the story is going – but what intrigues is less the destination than the road Moore takes to get there, with endless witty detours and mentions of the tale’s moment in time.
“Thank You for Having Me,” for instance, takes place “the day following Michael Jackson’s death” while the fine story “Debarking” is set in the George W. Bush era.
Ira, the central figure in “Debarking,” is invited to “a Lent dinner.” (“We didn’t really want to do Mardi Gras,” his host explains. “Too disrespectful, given the international situation.”)
It is at said dinner that Ira – divorced six months, father of an 8-year-old daughter – meets Zora, a pediatrician with a 16-year-old son. Later, he sends Zora an amusing postcard and short note that “he felt contained the correct mix of offhandedness and intent. This illusive mix – the geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip van Winkle – was important to get right in the world of middle-aged dating, he suspected, though what did he really know of this world? It had been so long, the whole thing seemed a kind of distant civilization, a planet of the apings! – graying, human flotsam with scorched internal landscapes mimicking the young, picking up where they had left off decades ago, if only they could recall where the hell that was.”
Symbolism, both of the obvious and the subtle kind, dots the landscapes of Moore’s stories. Ira finds he cannot remove his wedding ring, his finger is too swollen (or so he believes). Ira recalls his former wife referring to his interactions with others: “You bark at them, Marilyn used to say.”
Ira and Zora go to a restaurant where “the walls, like love, were trompe l’oeil … The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things – cheeks, tongues, thymus glands. The candle, like love, flickered …”
Zora, Ira soon sees, is a madwoman, physically and otherwise obsessed with her son, and the “priapic sculptures of boys” she creates in her spare time. Yes, Ira sees – but also does not see, settling for the seemingly sane moments: “Life was long and not that edifying, and one sometimes had to make do with randomly seized tidbits.”
A ghost story, “The Juniper Tree,” is Moore’s contemporary version of the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the same name – and she dedicates hers to Nietzchka Keene who wrote and directed the Icelandic film of the tale (which starred Björk).
Other stories here – “Paper Losses,” “Foes,” “Referential” and “Subject to Search” – are also alike in themes while generally unlike in style, imagery and thrust. Offbeat, all of them, droll yet deadly serious, each unexpected – for that is Moore’s great gift: She does not, and perhaps cannot, think inside the box.
An angry wife in “Paper Losses,” for example, does “not even try to act natural: natural was a felony,” while KC of “Wings” answers to the name “Casey” as well, reasoning: “A life could rhyme with a life – it could be a jostling close call that one mistook for the thing itself.”
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist