Birds of America

Lorrie Moore

A classic collection of short stories, I keenly felt while reading this how many stories I’ve read that have emulated the witty absurdity of Lorrie Moore. But while there may be a layer of quirkiness on top of her writing, not far underneath are more complex, melancholy themes: grief, loneliness, anxiety, illness. The last story “Wonderful Mother” is about a woman who is handed a friend’s baby at a barbecue, loses her balance, and drops the baby — a fatal accident. In her resulting pathological guilt, she marries a professor, who she seems at most ambivalent about, and then goes with him on an academic retreat in Italy. It may sound like a beautiful escape, but instead every night she struggles to make conversation with the other academics, who generally lose interest when they realize she is merely a spouse. Her attempts to maintain their interest get zanier as the nights progress.

Moore makes especially entertaining moments involving group conversations, including the New Year’s Eve party in “Beautiful Grade” and an exchange in “Dance in America” that seems to be quoted often on Goodreads. The narrator is a dancer who spends a night with an old college friend, his French wife, and their son with cystic fibrosis. Over dinner the friend asks about the dancer’s relationship, and she informs him that it has ended. Then the wife chimes in, presumably in sympathy:

“The thing to remember about love affairs,” says Simone, “is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney.”

“Oh, not the raccoon story,” groans Cal.

“Yes! The raccoons!” cries Eugene.

I’m sawing at my duck.

“We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney,” explains Simone.

“Hmmm,” I say, not surprised.

“And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead.” Simone swallows some wine. “Love affairs are like that,” she says. “They all are like that.”

In many ways her stories follow similar arcs and patterns, but they are so enjoyable to me that it doesn’t matter.