Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lorrie Moore’s love of masterful wordplay shows in her award-winning short story collection, Bark

BARK, Lorrie Moore’s collection of eight short stories was one of the three finalists for the 2014 Story Prize. Although the prize was won by Elizabeth McCracken for THUNDERSTRUCK, Moore’s BARK was named A Notable Book by both the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Financial Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Book Page. Not shabby recognition.

Moore’s first story collection in fifteen years, BARK plays with the various meanings of the word: the sound a dog makes, marijuana as “sparky bark”, the bark of trees, characters barking orders, the outer
bark of the brain, and characters embarking into, or disembarking from, bad relationships. Moore is a writer who loves wordplay.

The first, and perhaps strongest, story, “Debarking,” concerns Ira, a sad, newly-divorced fellow whose wife, Marilyn, left him for another man. He has a young daughter, Bekka. Speaking of her mother’s new boyfriend:

Bekka shrugged and chewed. "Whatever," she said, her new word for “You’re welcome,” “Hello.” “Good-bye,” and “I’m only eight.” I really just don’t want all his stuff there. Already his car blocks our car in the driveway.

“Bummer,” said Ira, his new word for “I must remain as neutral as possible” and “Your mother’s a whore.”

Ira meets Zora, a divorced pediatrician and the mother of a surly adolescent son, Bruno, who is “between social groups right now.” Ira is smitten but gradually notices her strangeness. She wants to write a children’s book about a sad little hedgehog who goes for a walk and comes upon a strange house with a sign that says, “Welcome, Hedgehog: This Could Be Your New Home” so he goes inside and finds a family of alligators:

“Well, I’ll spare you the rest but you can get the general flavor of it from that.”
“I don’t know about that family of alligators.”
She was quiet for a moment, chewing her beautiful ruby steak. “Every family is a family of alligators,” she said.

Add to that her oddly inappropriate behavior with her son – wrestling, jostling, tickling – and her wish to be with him at all times. Bruno goes with them on their dates. Bruno gets to sit on the front seat with his mother while Ira, her date, folds himself into the small back seat. She weeps in a restaurant and has to rush home to her son because she misses him so much.

Still Ira hangs on: “I can’t let go of love. I can’t live without love in my life.” He thinks she is beautiful: “Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure there would be a study that showed the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.” But even Ira has a limit.

“Wings,” the other long story in the collection recalls the plot of Henry James’ THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. It is the story of KC and her loser boyfriend, Dench. Their band has broken up, their e-newsletter has been abandoned, they have gone through almost all their money. She has cut off her hair and sold it; they have even tried to sell their clothes on e-Bay.

She at first suspects that he is selling pot because he never has an explanation for the occasional money he comes up with. Eventually, she begins to hope he is selling pot.

He, on the other hand, wants her to befriend – and profit from – a wealthy, elderly man she has met by accident while walking her dog. Milt is a widower who lives alone in an enormous house and is clearly very lonely. He is also very ill. KC begins spending more time with him, drives him to appointments, plays the piano and sings for him, makes meals on occasion and takes him to the beach for a picnic. Milt says of old age:

“Of course, old people are the stupidest. It’s the thing that keeps me from wanting to live in a whole facility full of them. Just listen to them talk: just listen to me talk. It’s like: I’ve been walking around with the dumb thought for forty years and I’m still thinking it, so now I might as well say it over and over.”

Dench urges her on but also sends out ambivalent signals. Milt changes his Will to leave his house and everything he has to KC. After he goes into hospice, she finally does what she should have done to Dench years before: “she made a fist and struck him in the face.”

The most political of the stories, “Foes,” refers to a Democratic candidate, “Brocko,” and is set at a fundraising event for a literary magazine. A writer whose biography of Washington has had poor sales is nonetheless invited to help charm potential donors. He is seated next to a right-wing lobbyist who condescendingly makes political pronouncements and calls him “my friend.” It is initially very funny but veers into a more serious vein when she claims to have been in the Pentagon on 9/11. What he took to be bad cosmetic surgery appears to him now to be the repairs of serious burns.

The collection also includes “The Juniper Tree,” a ghost story, and “Paper Losses,” in which a husband has surprised his wife with divorce papers, suggesting that they arrange to have it finalized on their wedding anniversary “for the symmetry.”

I can’t imagine that the judges for The Story Award had an easy time making a decision. Lorrie Moore is masterful. Her stories are “mordantly funny” (NY Review of Books) and heartbreakingly sad, all at the same time. You know, like life.

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