"Bark: Stories" by Lorrie Moore; Knopf (176 pages, $25)
If you view the human condition through a dark lens - as opposed to those rose-colored glasses happier people prefer - you might feel that we're all a bit like the doomed baby sea turtles in Lorrie Moore's story "Paper Losses." Plucked from the night beach by hotel personnel and held for the tourists' pleasure, they're released to make their way to the ocean far too late the next morning, their "wee webbed feet already edged in desiccating brown. ... (O)ne by one, a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast."
This isn't to say that the fiction in "Bark," Moore's first collection of short stories since 1998's "Birds of America," is entirely gloomy and desperate. Her sharp sense of humor and pointed wit are evident throughout. "Paper Losses," about an estranged couple's last family vacation, begins: "Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other."
In "Debarking, "about a divorced man's troubling venture into the dating world, a "small, oblivious, and tolerant community" has "no natural predators." A woman in "Wings," which contains echoes of Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove," contemplates her infuriating lover and thinks how hard her life would be if she left him: "You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie."
Such fractured relationships - between men and women, parents and children, friends - fill Bark. Also the author of the collections "Like Life" and "Self-Help" and the novels "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital," "Anagrams" and "A Gate at the Stairs," Moore measures our weaknesses against the absurdity of contemporary America and delivers an uncompromising, amusing yet disturbingly authentic account of modern life.
As she did in "A Gate at the Stairs," a funny and ultimately heartbreaking post-9/11 novel that plays out on a college campus, Moore places her characters at significant points in time, contrasting the frustrations of the bigger picture with ordinary personal turmoil. Divisions and separations haunt them.
In "Foes," a writer at a swanky literary fundraiser during the 2008 presidential campaign, finds himself in a contentious discussion with the lobbyist next to him, but their spat troubles him less than the reminder she provides of the tenuousness of happiness, even with the wife he loves: "He willed all his love into the very ends of his fingertips. ... but she had already turned her head away."
In "Subject to Search," a couple with a complicated past meets at last in Paris ("They had gotten lucky at long last and neither of them was married anymore - though anything that was at long last, and that had involved such miserable commotion, was unlikely to be truly lucky.") But reality intervenes: He, a military consultant, must rush off to deal with the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal. The name sounds like Jabberwocky gibberish to her: "the mome raths outgrabe."
"Debarking" takes place against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq, which reminds its lonely protagonist of another devastating event: "He had felt his face drop in this manner once before - when he got the divorce papers from Marilyn, now there was shock and awe for you." Driving past a small group of protesters holding "Honk for Peace" signs, he frantically presses his horn. Other drivers join in, "honking like geese in a wild chorus of futility, windshield wipers clearing their fan-shaped spaces on the drizzled night glass. ... For all its stupidity and solipsism and scenic civic grief, it was something like a gorgeous moment."
Not "gorgeous," but "something like gorgeous," a moment of desperate connection between people separated by steel, not ideology. But sometimes, something like gorgeous is the best we've got. In "Thank You for Having Me," a philosophical woman attends a wedding the day after Michael Jackson's death, watches the random events unfurl around her and decides at last to dance, even though storm clouds are likely to burst open any moment. The allusion is one of Moore's most obvious and yet it works, because it's undeniably true: May as well be happy till you can't be.
See, hope is what keeps us afloat through all these missed connections and twisting paths. The mother in "Referential" knows her institutionalized son will never be well and that her own relationship is over despite her partner's appearance at the facility for her boy's birthday. But she understands hope and can't quite let it go. "Living did not mean one joy piled upon another," she thinks. "It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game."
The game changes all the time, Moore's stories tell us. All we can do is wait for a fresh deck and a new deal.