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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bark

One of our greatest practitioners of the short story is Lorrie Moore, and her latest collection is called Bark. The title word can be taken several different ways, and all appear in her stories, whether it's the sound a dog makes, the skin of a tree, or the name for the outer shell of the brain, which is gray, but contains the white matter inside.

Moore's stories are almost always about marriage, divorce, and parenthood, and there are eight stories here that are roughly about those topics, although one, an outlier, actually has a ghost. All of them have her deliciously skewed sense of humor, and while the story may be one of great sadness, there is always a line that amuses, usually the first line, such as "Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other." Or: "Tom arrived with his suitcase, It's John Kerry sticker died not even say 'For President,' so it seemed as if if John Kerry might be the owner or designer of the bag."

Not all of the stories hit high with me, but about half of them I thought were just about perfect. The opener, "Debarking," is about Ira, a divorced man back in the dating game, who somehow ends up in a relationship with a peculiar woman. "Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it--a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends."

I was also very fond of "Foes," which saw an old married couple invited to a party in Washington. The man ends up seated to a conservative lobbyist, and stuck with her, spars with her on politics. He's from Chicago, so he says, even though he lives in Michigan, and doesn't like Washington: "An ostentatious company town built on a marsh--a mammoth, pompous chit-ridden motor vehicle department run by gladiators. High-level clerks on the take, their heads full of unsound sound bites and falsified recall." I could study that sentence for a week.

The longest story is called "Wings," and deals with a pair of failed musicians renting a house. The woman, while walking her dog, meets an elderly neighbor and, in spite of herself, strikes up a friendship with him. My favorite line from this story: "She had once found in her grandmother's shelves her mother's own frighteningly marked-up copy of The House of Mirth. The word whoa appeared on every other page."

The last story, "Thank You For Having Me," is the quirkiest, starting with the lead character's reaction to the death of Michael Jackson to a country wedding interrupted by a motorcycle gang. There is a sweet, visceral relationship between the narrator and her fifteen-year-old daughter, and an acute observation of wedding fashion: "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 the have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding."

A few stories didn't resonate with me. I did enjoy "Referential," which I had read in an earlier collection, about a mother with a deranged son, much more this time than the first. But "The Juniper Tree," which features a ghost, seems like a failed experiment for Moore.

Even so, I found this a solid collection, and Moore remains one of my favorite contemporary authors.

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