Lorrie Moore isn't quite a household name. This was news to me, because I thought that, given that she's the kind of writer who's published in The New Yorker and profiled in The New York Times, most culture vultures would know who she is. But, over the past couple of weeks when I mentioned her new book, Bark, in conversations, both in the halls of academe and over meals with friends, I mostly got blank stares. (One smarty confused her with that other great literary "Lorrie" — the late Laurie Colwin — whose short stories and novels are also essential reading.)
Maybe Lorrie Moore's muzzy kind of literary fame is due to the fact she doesn't publish a lot. A warp speed wonder like Joyce Carol Oates publishes 20 books in the time it takes for Moore to crank out a story, but she's almost always worth the wait.
There are eight stories in this collection whose frivolous title, Bark, refers to both the stray roving dog and to the stuff that covers trees. For me, the first story, called "Debarking," is itself worth the price of this book. "Debarking" is about a guy named Ira who's newly divorced from his former wife, Marilyn. Here's Moore's trademark digressive, loopy narrative voice explaining why Ira hasn't yet removed his wedding ring:
The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything [Ira] had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a ... happy vine.
The rest of the story concerns Ira's stumbling attempts to start a relationship with a woman who's too physically attached to her own teenage son. In the background — the way world events usually do provide the background to our own private dramas — the U.S. invasion of Iraq is about to begin. Ira so desperately wants to be settled again, to take cover in the safe bunker of marriage and escape this grim world of middle-aged dating and sad weekly visits from his little daughter who, he reflects, is "now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off." Ira, though, is too raw; Moore makes you feel for him and, at the same time, she makes you want to push off the weight of Ira — all his exposed, sappy neediness — far away.
Although Moore has said she finds short story collections organized around a "theme," contrived, many of the other stories in Bark also mull over the shock of sudden aloneness after a relationship has collapsed or someone has died. "The Juniper Tree" is a ghost story in which a college professor is visited by the taunting specter of a friend who's just died from cancer. Even the concluding story, "Thank You for Having Me," which is about a wedding, folds in this simultaneously irreverent and profound riff on death and loss. The unnamed wedding guest, a single mom, tells us:
It felt important spiritually to go to weddings: to give balance to the wakes and memorial services ... And without weddings there were only funerals. I had 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 soccer matches that 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 ... I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfect upon the surface it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone ...
Not every story in Bark is so memorable — in fact, I'd say there are even numbers of clunkers and keepers here. But, Moore is such an original, I'm not complaining too much. No other writer would think of the peeled-off exposure of divorce in terms of "debarking"; no other writer lights on descriptions like "the old-silver-jewelry smell of oncoming rain." Well, OK, maybe one other writer would: Moore does remind me of that other American original, Emily Dickinson. They share a love for puns, an unpremeditated oddness, and an abiding sense of solitariness. Dickinson didn't publish enough either, at least in her lifetime, but she, too, was pretty much worth the wait.