“Isaw something on PBS recently,” says a character in Lorrie Moore’s latest collection: “[T]he outer bark of the brain — and it does look like bark — is gray.”
So our nerve center, seat of reason and computational power, isn’t pure white like a pillow but sheathed in the color of dirty snow.
This realization speaks to the state mind of Moore’s characters. They carom through this collection wishing they hadn’t been so “stupidly intrepid” but are incapable of operating any other way.
Where rationality drops off, her tales begin. There’s never been a writer quite like Moore, one who can raise such heavy-sad zeppelins on the helium gusts of voice alone.
“Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off,” opens “Debarking,” in which a divorced man fails at life alone. “I’m going to have my entire finger surgically removed,” he moans.
Instead, with some encouragement, he dives into the dating pool and meets a teacher who smells of nutmeg and has a strange attachment to her son. Moore hilariously evokes going to bed with a new person in middle age.
“[O]nce she got Ira’s glasses off, she became a blur of dim and shifting shapes and might as well have been Dick Cheney or Lon Chaney or Lee Marvin or the Blob, except that she smelled good and but for the occasional rough patch had the satiny skin of a girl.”
Most of Moore’s characters are nudging 60, suddenly having to learn new tricks. Ira and his ex pass their child back and forth “in a speedy ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off.” Those who are still married wonder why. In “Paper Losses,” a woman observes, “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle.”
From her very first book, “Self Help,” so packed with married men and bad ideas, Moore has written fabulously about inappropriate attachments. As her career has progressed, this humor has darkened without curdling.
Like Edna O’Brien, she recognizes that attachments are rarely chosen but thrust upon us. In “Wings,” a failing 38-year-old musician befriends an elderly widower. After several entreaties, she accepts his offer of coffee and enters a home piled with papers. “She recognized the panic at even a moment’s boredom that all these piles contained,” and, “the unreasonable hopefulness regarding time.”
Their relationship runs aground, mostly on his illness, but not before it has become a placeholder for the man with whom she is living. “Losing love was a slow dying,” Moore’s character thinks, “but losing confidence was a quick coup, a floor that opened right up and swallowed.”
Here is why one reads Moore: the terse, true polish of her emotional wisdom. After all, there’s a familiar feel to the stories in “Bark.” They are filled with the inherent comedy of coupling; the train whistle of mortality; the guilt associated with failure. She has written of all this before.
Yet in each story of “Bark” the knives of Moore’s wisdom feel newly sharpened, their jab urgently swift. Time, for so many of these characters, is running out. The stakes are rising. In “Referential,” a woman breaks up with a kind of stepfather to her disabled teenager. She feels guilty, but not surprised. “Tenderness did not enter [their lives] except in a damaged way and by luck.”
Moore appears aware of her gloom’s voluptuous charm and smartly sends it up in several stories. In “Foes,” a biographer cynically spars through a fund-raising dinner with a right-wing lobbyist. Just as he prepares to pounce, he discovers he has completely misread the source — and trauma — behind her rage.
There’s just one misfire in this book. “Subject to Search” attempts to transpose the Abu Ghraib scandal onto a late-life affair a man and woman may or may not be having. He is a spook; she’s a contractor; and, like their nation, they’ve wound up in a tight spot either by reading the wrong signals or reading them all too well.
“A Gate at the Stairs,” Moore’s 2009 novel, meditated beautifully on the risk that perforates American life now, both politically and emotionally. One’s son (or daughter) need not be a soldier to know the wildness of the attachment between parent and offspring. Still, stoking her family tale with the shifting fires of post-9/11 anxiety felt right.
The best moments in “Bark” move seamlessly, like “A Gate at the Stairs,” between inner and outer worlds — between the paranoid mind of Moore’s characters and a world that reinforces that paranoia, either through suicide bombings or men who walk out in the night.
So who can blame Moore’s characters when they cling to their bark? In “Thank You for Having Me,” a woman attends a wedding and sees a man her age, eyeing the young bride. “He had had some eye work done . . . [H]e would rather look startled and insane than look fifty-six.” An unkind writer would spin this in judgment, but Moore’s character leads him onto the dance floor, where he wants to be, for one more spin.
And no one likes to lose his bark. “Above the house,” Ira in “Debarked” notes, as he leaves his new lover’s home, aware it’s probably not going to work out, “the hammered nickel of the moon gave off its murky shine.” The world is out there and here’s how we howl.
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”