BARK: Stories. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 192 pages. $24.95.
Ten years ago, Lorrie Moore wrote that the novel always arrives to us "bitter with ambition, already half-ruined. The story arrives, modest, prim, and purposeful, aiming for perfection." Because the story is freed from commercial aspirations, she suggests, it lies less: "It sings and informs and blurts. It has nothing to lose."
It's good news to report that 15 years since "Birds of America," her last collection, Moore's stories still sing and blurt, but no one would call them prim. Each is its own jaunty package of desperate jokes, corny puns, elaborate analogies and heartbreak.
Moore has said that she doesn't particularly care for the linked story collection and wants each of hers to stand alone and separate, and they do. Still, a kind of universal middle-age life emerges.
The stats on her characters go something like this: They are divorced or divorcing, adrift, lonely and hilarious. There's often a smart child or a prematurely wise teen in the mix. Like their broken marriages and spirits, houses are falling apart. They think a lot about time, and wonder if their happiness has come and gone.
The opening story, "Debarking," is one of the best. Moore begins with a close shot of the wedding ring, a double-edged symbol here of everything that was right and is now wrong in the life of Ira, her narrating hero. The ring is stuck on his finger, caught in the "blousy fat of his finger," like a vine. When others would turn away and move on, Moore ups the ante, climbing from outrage to outrage. Ira thinks of having the finger surgically removed. Within a few lines, his imagination is cutting off the hand and mailing it to Marilyn, his ex. Ira's marriage collapses against a background of war (divorce is his own private "shock and awe"). "All his tin penny miseries," he realizes, are nothing against the global craziness.
Yet it's domestic craziness and one human in all his forlorn need that drives this outstanding story (Ira runs into his former wife one day and feels "like a dog seeing its owner"). Still, it's spring, and he would like to offset death with new hope. As the story closes, Ira sits on a bar stool, a Jew praising the Resurrection: "Happy Easter ... The dead are risen ... God looked away for a second ... but he is back now. Nothing has been lost. All is restored."
In each of the eight stories in "Bark," Moore expertly registers the tragi-comedy of life. "Paper Losses" is another one about mid-life divorce and loss beyond repair. Kit (the story's spurned wife) has to declare to the judge that her marriage is "irretrievably broken," an absurdity that prompts her to ask, "What second-rate poet had gotten hold of the divorce laws? ... Why 'irretrievably broken like a songbird's wing?" The shift here from the language of officialdom to the language of metaphor is pure Moore.
There comes a moment in a Moore story when almost anyone is liable to speak like a philosopher or a poet. The head of a motorcycle gang that has disrupted a wedding, for instance, explains himself this way: "We just know that life can get quite startling in its switches and channels."
"Referential," the collection's stunner, is inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols." Like Nabokov's story, the central action of "Referential" is a visit to a son in a psychiatric hospital. Nabokov's parents are a married couple; Moore's visitors are a mother, unnamed, and Pete, a man who's been in the lives of mother and son for eight years. "The love they had for Peter was long and winding and not without hidden turns," Moore writes. The mother is connected to her son by intense love and identification. Once he is "stripped and gowned and placed in the facility," she removes her own ornaments (jewels, scarves, etc.) in solidarity.
In the son's referential world, everything connects to everything else in intricate, mirror-like patterns that mimic his thoughts. For his birthday, the mother gives her son a book about Daniel Boone, knowing he'll find in it a code for his own sense of wilderness and defeat. The mother understands that "the world was not created to speak just to her," but like her son, she can still watch the zigzag of lightning in the sky and see a message that "horizons could be shattered." The great fear for her is that there is no controlling plot, no communicating universe.
Outside the insular world of widowed mother and mutilated son, things are coming apart. She and Pete are reaching their end. Riding to the hospital, she understands their "desperations were separate, not joined."
Moore's stories quietly smash the idea of an orderly self in an orderly universe. The mother's recognition might stand for all the desperate, plucky characters in "Bark": "Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindness and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.