The odd title of Lorrie Moore’s first collection of stories in 15 years refers most directly to the opening piece, “Debarking” in which Ira, the protagonist, debarks from his failed marriage to enter the wilds of middle-aged dating. His luck is bad. Zora, his first new companion, has a queasily intimate relationship with her teenaged son that finally drives Ira away. “Go in and make yourself a stiff drink,” Ira tells Zora as they are breaking up on her doorstep. “People don’t drink as much as they used to. That’s what started this whole Iraq thing to begin with: it’s a war of teetotalers.” Ira’s pronouncement is strange and largely illogical, with maybe a glimmer of truth—it’s the sort of remark Moore’s characters are always making.
Indeed, Moore’s philosophy is embedded in comments like Ira’s: we perceive the world in unanticipated glimpses, which are soon lost, or forgotten. In Moore’s largely middle-class and middle-aged universe, people are uncertain, flummoxed, and almost always disappointed. The ultimate symbol of this disappointment is divorce, which confirms for the characters—and their author—that despite our great and comic efforts to connect with one another, we are doomed to end up alone.
In “Paper Losses,” for instance, Kit and Rafe, who “had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nuke signs, now…wanted to kill each other.” Nevertheless, they take one final, disastrous family vacation to the Caribbean, after which their divorce leaves Kit wondering, “was it past evening imagining?—that she and Rafe had ever been together at all.”
Moore is especially acute in her vision of how divorce affects teenaged children. The narrator of “Thank You for Having Me” believes that “Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed family dynamic, if they were families at all. Perhaps they were more like cruddy buddy movies, and the dialogue between them was unrecognizable as filial or parental. It was extraterrestrial.”
Even when middle-aged couples are still married, divorce shadows their union. In “Foes,” Bake McKurty, a 60-year-old biographer of George Washington, and his wife, Suzy, attend a party where Bake meets a “a brisk young Asian woman in tapping heels.” Moore writes: “He felt a small stirring in him. He had always been attracted to Asian women, though he knew he mustn’t mention this to Suzy, or to anyone really.” That final phrase—a seemingly offhand remark—is typical of Moore’s ability to depict not only a character, but an entire culture, in just a few words.
What’s so appealing about Moore’s fiction is the way her gloom is punctuated by humor, and vice versa. In “The Juniper Tree,” the narrator observes: “That was how dating among straight middle-aged woman seemed to go in this college town: one available man every year or so just made the rounds of us all.” And Moore might be describing her own worldview when a character in “Subject to Search” remarks, “If you’re suicidal…and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as “wry.””
A few times in the collection, wryness edges toward outright despair. The unnamed protagonist of “Referential” has a teenaged son locked up in a mental institution, and she and her mostly off-again boyfriend, Pete, are deciding what to get him for his birthday. With characteristic brevity Moore describes how the woman perceives her own aging: “She went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, as when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an Amish man….‘To me you always looks so beautiful,’ Pete no longer said.”
Moore has been a professor of creative writing for decades, and her craft throughout Bark is impeccable. Although the language of her characters is far from poetic, she has a poet’s sense of brevity and music. Her stories are page-turners not because they are laden with suspense but because readers know each new sentence will be an unexpected little gem of humor or sadness, or both.