Short stories real, emotional

Sunday, October 25, 1998

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 thus far.
     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 note.
     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 date.
(Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of Charleston.)




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