Lorrie Moore is good at bad jokes. She’s good at good jokes, too, and makes many of them. But good jokes are the sign of a certain control over the world, or at least of a settled vision, the sort of vision a writer has. Good jokes are finally just jokes; whereas bad jokes are more revelatory of character and situation. Wonky puns, look-at-me one-liners, inappropriately perky comebacks: these don’t necessarily denote lack of humor, more a chin-up flailing at the discovery that the world is not a clean, well-lighted place; or that it is for some, but not for you, as the light falls badly on you and mysteriously casts no shadow.
Birds of America, Moore’s third collection of stories, is cleverly laid out. It begins with seven stories of the kind at which she has always been supremely adept: shrewd, blackish tales of women on the edge of un-raveling, smart women whose situations wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t hopeless. The uncertainly married daughter on a motoring tour of Ireland with her seemingly hyperefficient mother; the shy librarian trying to live with a political activist and finding personal commitment as hard and strange as the wider sort; the lawyer going home for a Christmas of relentless charades and sibling dysfunction; the wife and mother trying therapy for the death of her cat, having visited “all the stages of bereavement: anger, denial, bargaining, Häagen-Dazs, rage.”
“She was unequal to anyone’s wistfulness.” “She hadn’t been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She’d been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.”’ “Blank is to heartache as forest is to bench” (this, naturally from a scholastic tester). “She looked at Joe. Every arrangement in life carried with it the sadness, the sentimental shadow, of its not being something else, but only itself.” As a reviewer you are tempted merely to quote your way through this emotional territory, one in which sassy, or at least wryly percipient, women get involved with slower, generally well-meaning but finally hopeless men. Life constantly refuses to show such women the plot, or give them a big enough part, or allow them to wear enough makeup in the chorus line so as not to be recognized. Love? Love turns out to be “flightless, dodo,” and its fault-lines no less painful for being familiar. When Olena the librarian (her name already an anagram of Alone) discovers her lover is having an affair, his justification is so puny as to be almost winning: “I’m sorry…it’s a sixties thing.” Simone, one of the robuster female characters, thinks that love affairs are like having raccoons in your chimney. How so?
“We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney…. 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 …