As a reviewer, I occasionally read well-written books that I simply don’t enjoy. The plot might be ingenious, the characters may be honest and idiosyncratic, and the dialogue might be clever, but—for whatever reason—there’s no emotional connection for me. I’ll happily recommend books so long as I can recognize some kind of lasting value, but “smart” books don’t always guarantee a fun read.
Then there’s Lorrie Moore.
I fell in love with the author back in 1985, with the publication of Self Help, her first collection of short stories. Incredibly witty, full of astute observations, and loaded with insight and simple truths, Moore quickly established herself as an immense talent, a reason to check The New Yorker’s table of contents every week. And the brilliant stories kept coming—in Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998)—along with several well-reviewed novels. Like T.C. Boyle, Moore is a writer who excels at the short story, which is why I am delighted with the appearance of Bark (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), her first new collection in more than 15 years. When I read Lorrie Moore, I feel very much like a wise person has shared something special with me: a worthwhile lesson, a homemade treat.
Bark is a slim volume, eight stories of love and loss, dating disasters and emotional missteps. Half of them originally appeared in The New Yorker; fans of Granta and The Paris Review will recognize others.
Moore’s “Paper Losses” is a quiet heartbreaker. Kit and Rafe are in the middle of a painful divorce, but go on a Caribbean vacation with their young children anyway. It ends with a quiet punch to the gut, and it’s my favorite story here.
“Debarking” pits Ira, a recently divorced state employee, against Zora, an attractive pediatrician with an unusual attachment to her teenage son, Bruno.
“The Juniper Tree” is a mature ghost story, while “Foes” tackles the social anxiety of a married writer seated next to an opinionated lobbyist at a fundraising dinner.
“Wings” is another stunner. The story, which has its roots in William James’ Wings of the Dove, features KC, an unsuccessful musician struggling with her fleeting youth, who temporarily abandons her boyfriend Dench and starts focusing her attention on Milt, an elderly widower with a five-bedroom house.
“Referential” is a riff on Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” about a couple visiting the woman’s mentally ill son at an institution.
There’s so much heartbreak and unhappiness here, so many hard-learned lessons. Failed relationships, hurt feelings, a wedding ceremony disrupted by a motorcycle gang in “Thank You For Having Me.” Some of these stories of relationships in decline are set against a world in decline (post 9/11, post Abu Ghraib), but readers are never left without hope, or Moore’s highly developed sense of humor. ★★★★★
What’s on our reviewer’s radar …
B.J. Novak is probably best known for co-starring in The Office, but Novak—who graduated from Harvard—is also a writer. His new book, One More Thing (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), is a collection of more than 60 short stories and vignettes, full of mirth and melancholy. Fans of absurdist fiction, take note.