Short stories real, emotional
Sunday, October 25,
Birds of America
by Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 291 pages. $23.
Like her last novel, "Who Will Run
the Frog Hospital?", Lorrie Moore's new book is less
minimalist than her earlier work. "Birds of America,"
Moore's current collection of stories combines sharp wit and
gentle sadness, deep pain and wry humor in a manner more
nuanced and fully realized than anything she has written
The ironies which made Moore's
first volume of short stories, "Self-Help," laugh-out-loud
funny have been leavened with a greater emotional depth. In
"Birds," the jokes still amuse, but the stories feel more
"real" and are genuinely moving.
A case in point is "People Like
That Are the Only People Here," in which a couple discover
that their baby has a tumor on his left kidney. The story's
tone fuses sarcasm with pathos - a combination that could
easily fail, but here works very well. When the mother
begins crying, the surgeon tells her that the baby won't
suffer as much as she will. The narrator responds, "And who
can contradict? Not the baby, who in his Slavic Betty Boop
voice can say only mama, dada, cheese, ice, bye-bye,
outside, boogie-boogie, goody-goody, eddy-eddy and car. (Who
is Eddy? They have no idea)."
These tender, comic sentences soon
give way to a passage heavy with love and despair. "If you
go," the mother tells the baby as she washes him later that
night, "we are going with you. We are nothing without you.
Without you, we are a heap of rocks. We are gravel and mold.
Without you, we are two stumps, with nothing any longer in
our hearts. Wherever this takes you, we are following. We
will be there. Don't be scared. We are going, too."
The mother's speech, with the
biblical cadences of its repeated phrases, subtly becomes an
incantation, a prayer for a relief that may never come.
It's not that these stories swing
back and forth from heartfelt to humorous; it's that they
manage to be both at the same time. This ability to sustain
apparently contrary moods in the same scene - and often in
the same sentence - gives Moore's prose its vitality. Her
use of unusual metaphors wrenches words from their expected
meanings, finding something unique in situations that, in
lesser hands, would become cliches.
When, for example, one character's
mother sings off-key, an ordinary scene becomes anything but
ordinary: "Her voice was husky, vibrating, slightly flat,
coming in just under each note like a saucer under a cup."
The exactness of the saucer-cup fit stands in tension with
the inexact sound - a precise trope for an imprecise
Moore's stories gather together the
loose ends of experience without tying them in neat
packages. As "Agnes of Iowa" describes the mishmash decade
when she "had lived improvisationally," we are told "Such a
life ... engaged gross quantities of hope and despair and
set them wildly side by side, like a Third World country of
the heart." The lives in "Birds of America" are like that;
the book delves into "the marshy ideas on which intimate
life is built," as one character half-mockingly describes
her writing style. Moore's half-mocking, fully developed
characters make "Birds of America" her strongest work to
(Phil Nel is an adjunct
professor of English at The College of Charleston.)