Review: Bark


BarkBark is Lorrie Moore’s first collection of stories in sixteen years, and it is a work to devour. While most of the eight stories have appeared elsewhere, including three in The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore (2008), they feel fresh here. We see what Moore has been up to all these years. Moore’s humor and sensibility have evolved now that she and her characters have reached middle age.She still dazzles with word plays and turns meaning on end, but she makes fewer wisecracks, and the stories are sadder. In the past her awkward characters faced plenty of tragedy, but had a youth on their side. In this collection, she examines loss brought on by her familiar themes of divorce and death, but her characters are older, and struggle in a darker way.

That said, Moore knows how to have a good time, starting with her playful title. Three epigraphs from poets Caroline Squire, Louise Glück, and Amy Gerstler refer to bark. Squires writes about an apple tree, Glück and Gerstler about dogs. Moore works bark into the collection in joking and devastating ways, and not only for the reader. The characters are more devastated by their experiences in these stories than in her previous stories.

The first story, “Debarking,” is about a Lent-to-Easter relationship between Ira, a Jew, and Zora, a non-Jew from Kentucky, a pediatrician, whom he meets at a party. Here Moore uses the word debarking in every sense. Debarking (besides leaving a plane or a boat, or stripping a tree) is a controversial veterinary surgery in which a dog’s vocal cords are cut. It muffles the bark, but not a dog’s desire to bark.

Ira is debarking from his marriage, but cannot part with the protective bark of his wedding ring. It is stuck in the “blowsy fat” of his finger. He once succeeded in removing it, but was so terrified, he shoved it back. His ex-wife criticizes him for barking at people, and Zora’s son has “a barking, howling voice.”

Like Moore, Ira loves to play with language, and being a Jew at a Lent party presents opportunities:

Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the crucifixion. “We really didn’t intend it.’ he murmured. ‘Not really. not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away? You know how spring can get a little crazy, but, believe me, we’re all really, really sorry.”

Zora is the only one who laughs, and so their relationship begins. Lonely Ira is grateful for Zora’s company, though it soon becomes clear that she is completely crazy and sexually inappropriate with her teenage son, Bruno, with whom she plays footsie and wrestles. In her spare time, she makes statues of naked young boys with holes drilled through their penises and sells them as garden fountains.

Zora tells Ira she broke up with her last boyfriend because Bruno disliked him, so Ira pathetically tries to please Bruno while hating him. He gives Bruno his TV and VCR, tolerate Bruno’s presence on dates with Zora, is obliged to include Bruno in his birthday celebration, and swallows his sorrow when Zora takes the birthday cake she made for Ira home for Bruno’s lunch. Ira sees the signs, but doesn’t heed them.

At a restaurant where “[t]he menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things— cheeks, tongues, thymus glands,” Zora begins crying and reveals she’s gone off her antidepressants and had a nervous breakdown two years ago. She needs to go home immediately because she misses Bruno. It’s the night before Easter, and even Ira has had enough. In the final scene, on Easter, Ira sits alone at a bar, thinking about his ex-wife, who ignored him when they last crossed paths in town. “He had felt like a dog seeing his owner.” Ira drinks bourbon after bourbon (“neat, sweet, heat”) and yammers on about the dead rising, until a man says, “Somebody slap that guy.”

Bark word plays pop up everywhere, and spotting them is fun, like a treasure hunt. Moore plays with every twist and association of the word. Dogs and trees appear everywhere. The divorced mother in “Thank You For Having Me” describes watching a PBS show and learning that “only the outer bark of the brain—and it does look like bark—is gray. Apparently the other half of the brain has a lot of white matter. For connectivity.”

In “Paper Losses,” a soon-to-be divorced wife muses: “Divorce, she could see, would be like marriage: a power grab. Who would be the dog and who would be the owner of the dog?” And in “Wings,” when an elderly man is told that a dog’s bark is worse than his bite, he notes, “…the bite is always worse.”

As in her previous stories, Moore writes about what is broken, especially in romance, but now her tone mourns failures and solitude, where as her earlier stories tended to be ironic and comical. Her younger characters were quirky, and often stranded among people they didn’t understand in the Midwest. In one earlier example, “You’re Ugly Too,” the narrator, a professor, skips into the lecture hall singing the “King and I.” Hope has shifted with age. The divorced mother in “Thank You For Having Me” says:

If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, reallyabsolutely alone when you were dead, why ‘learn to be alone’ in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand.

She is with her daughter at a babysitter’s clearly doomed second wedding.

These newer characters look cautiously about before making a move, although they still end up ambushed by love and loss. In “Paper Losses,” Kit’s husband, Rafe, sends divorce papers to their house through the mail, which she cluelessly opens, as she’s been in denial.

He seemed to have turned into some kind of space alien. Of course, later she would understand that all this meant that he was involved with another woman, but at that time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypothesis only: brain tumor or space alien.

In an earlier Moore story, “Real Estate,” the narrator says: “The key to marriage…was just not to take the thing too personally.” In “Paper Losses,” Kit marvels at the legalese of divorce proceedings, particularly the phrase “irretrievably broken”:

What second-rate poet had gotten hold of the divorce laws? She would find the words sticking in her throat, untrue in their conviction. Was not everything fixable? This age of disposables, was it not also the age of fantastic adhesives? Why ‘irretrievably broken’ like a songbird’s wing? Why not, “Do you find this person you were married to, and who is now sitting next to you in the courtroom, a total asshole?”

Several of the stories—“Foes,” “Subject to Search,” and “Debarking”—weave the political violence of 9/11, the Iraq war, and Abu Ghraib into the wreckage of psyches and relationships. In “Foes,” a man named Bake (another Moore joke), ends up feeling sympathy for an Obama-hating “evil lobbyist,” sitting next to him at a fundraising dinner in 2008. The dinner is for a literary magazine. Bake, an unsuccessful biographer, and his wife have been given comp tickets and are expected to engage the patrons in literary banter. At first, he thinks his seatmate is Asian and attractive,then curses his luck for getting stuck beside such a right-winger. He spars with her about politics, and  eventually realizes that she has been hideously scarred, “burned alive,” in the 9/11 Pentagon attack and surgically reconstructed.

He saw now that her fingernails really were plastic, that her hand really was a dry frozen claw, that the face that had seemed intriguingly exotic had actually been scarred by fire and only partially repaired. He saw that she was cloaked in a courageous and hideous intensity. The hair was beautiful, but now he imagined it was probably a wig. Pity poured through him. How could someone have come so close to death, so unfairly, so painfully and heroically, and how could he still want to strangle them?

On the way home in a taxi with his wife he is ashamed of his behavior and does not tell her, but imagines her leaving him to “an endgame of geriatric speed dating.” This would take place “midst bankruptcy and war, might be the real circle of hell he was destined for.” The story ends on a compassionate note with the two holding hands, wedding ring on top of wedding ring. “He willed all his love into the very end of his fingertips, and as he hand clasped hers he watched the firm, deliberate hydraulics of its knuckles and joints.”

In “Subject to Search,”a long-awaited romantic trip to Paris is interrupted byAbu Ghraib. The narrator’s companion, an intelligence officer, leaves her in a café after getting orders to fly back to the States before the news breaks.

He looked through her a bit and lowered his voice. “I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet. Whatever you do don’t have them be naked in front of a woman. Whatever you do don’t involve them in any sexual horseplay whatsoever. Do not pantomime fellatio – which is probably good advice for everyone.”

The narrator is left waving awkwardly on the corner, and the relationship and the man’s health go downhill from here.

In “The Juniper Tree,” the narrator is dating a man one of her close friends once dated.” The friend used to laugh about this, and say she was “good at sharing,” to which the narrator answers: “Well I’m not.” Not sharing proves to be tough in her town.“That is how dating among the straight middle-aged women seems to go in this college town: one available man every year or so just makes the rounds of us all.”

The friend now has cancer, and the narrator has put off visiting her in the hospital. Instead, she has the datable man over for drinks, telling herself her friend would be too tired that night.The next morning, she is set to go to the hospital when the phone rings, and she learns her friend has died. That same day, in a dream-like sequence, the narrator is driven by two mutual friends (the friends are real) to visit the dead woman and make gin rickeys. One of the friends has lost her arm in a car accident, the other, her mind to a stroke. The narrator is the only one who has not “had something terrible happen to her yet.” The two friends have brought death gifts, one a painting, the other performs a dance. The narrator has brought nothing. The dead woman looks at her and says: “Always a little out of the loop, eh?”

Most of Moore’s characters are out of the loop. This is a familiar theme for her, but now it strikes even deeper. The collection, dark as it is, has flashes of sweetness. “Wings” is a retelling of Henry James’ Wings of the Dove. A woman named KC inherits a house, which allows her to escape a dysfunctional relationship. The bitter divorcée at the wedding in “Thank You For Having Me” ends the night dancing. The joke doesn’t always have to be on us, although it usually is. Moore’s characters stumble bravely on, even if they are filled with sorrow. “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: choosing the best unhappiness,” as Kit says in “Paper Losses.”

Humor eases the sting of Moore’s sensibility.  A sun sets “in the striped hues of a rutabaga.” A wife’s headstone reads “Alone At Last.” The husband plans to engrave: “Not so Fast.”

In Debarking, set during the beginning of thewar in Iraq, Ira drives past signs that read, “Honk for Peace.”

Ira fell upon his horn, first bouncing his hand there, then just leaning his whole arm into it. Other cars began to do the same, and soon no one was going anywhere—a congregation of mourning doves! but honking like geese in a wild chorus of futility, windshield wipes clearing their fan-shaped spaces on the drizzled night glass. No car went anywhere for the change of two lights. For all its stupidity and solipsism and self-consciously scenic civic grief, it was something like a gorgeous moment.

Even when writing about bone-deep pain, Moore shows us those gorgeous moments.


Karen Uhlmann‘s stories have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Southern Indiana Review, Enizagam and other magazines. She has an MFA from Bennington College.

Review: Bark

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