After Lorrie Moore’s last collection of short stories, Birds of America, came out in 1998, humorist David Sedaris recommended it during his speaking engagements. He described the structure of her stories as “joke, joke, joke, joke” and then at the end, “you’re devastated.”
Sixteen years later, Moore is back with a new collection of eight stories, Bark, and she hasn’t lost her witty bite. As Sedaris pointed out, her stories seem to be constructed out of a series of one-liners that assemble into a loose plot while the reader is too busy laughing to notice.
Moore’s stories kick off with great lines, such as the one in “Paper Losses:” “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.”
Rafe serves Kit with divorce papers, but she decides to go ahead with a long-planned family trip with the kids to the Caribbean, which only speeds their unraveling. A few weeks later, Kit is in court, discovering that “the county owned her marriage and that the county was now taking it back like a chicken franchise she had made a muck of, forbidding her to own another franchise for six more months, with the implication that she might want to stay clear of all poultry cuisine for a much longer time than that.”
Many of the characters in Bark have made mucks of their own chicken franchises and are now divorced and raising children alone, or are muddling through as lonely singles. Several of the characters make a dispiriting go of the middle-aged dating scene in such places as a college town where “one available man every year or so just made the rounds” of all the “straight middle-aged women.”
In “Debarking,” Ira is six months divorced and unsettled about the start of the Iraq war when his friend sets him up with the beautiful and crazy Zora. She works as a pediatrician but cavorts with her teenage son Bruno as though she were the same age as him and not his mother. Ira realizes the brooding Bruno with his air of “weary belligerence” will be his opponent for Zora’s affections. But Ira also suspects he might be too beaten down by life to compete.
Alongside these stronger stories are some looser ones, still just as funny, but with a tendency to lose focus or trail off at the end, such as “Foes,” in which 60-year-old Bake McKurty, the author of an “ill-selling biography of George Washington” is invited to a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for Lunar Lines Literary Journal. Although Bake is one of the few happily married people in Bark, he’s on antidepressants, resulting in a six-month period of abstinence in his marriage. He clashes with a donor at the gala, makes a lame joke involving Boy George, and not much else happens.
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