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Could Moore Be Merrier, Please?

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Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore
Alfred A. Knopf; 291 pages; $23 cloth

'Birds of America' depresses,
thrills millions

By Traci Hukill

WHAT IS IT with short fiction these days? After reading the first story in Lorrie Moore's new collection, Birds of America, I wanted to crawl into my closet and hide there among the mounds of unfashionable, smelly old shoes.

Instead I mentally composed a letter scolding Moore for pounding her vulnerable readers with a devastating portrait of loneliness and despair right off the bat, without warning. I never sent the letter (didn't write it, either), but I did avoid the book for a few days. Such power ought to be treated with deference.

The bad news about Birds of America is that half the stories land on the same numbing, halfway-benign but still completely depressing note as the introductory "Willing," which chronicles the quiet unraveling of a washed-up actress. The good news is the other half don't.

More good news: Throughout Birds, Moore's prose gleams with nuance that makes even those crushing un-denouements--those evaporative moments just after the mood has leaped out the window and the story has ended midair--worthwhile.

Most (not all) of Moore's protagonists are women in some phase of middle age grappling with crushing loss--or sometimes just ordinary emptiness. They think a little too much. They don't see any charm in their "journeys." A whole muted spectrum of pained emotions converges in their stories--wistfulness, caustic humor, melancholy, the flat tones of depression.

In "Beautiful Grade," a witty but defeated law professor attends a New Year's Eve party with a woman half his age and takes a harsh accounting of his life as his mood plummets from festive to dark. The prognosis for "Agnes of Iowa" ranges from bleak to neutral to hopeful, and then back to bleak as a somewhat happily married woman comes to terms with the tame, metered pace of her life.

HAPPILY FOR US, Moore has a good sense of humor and applies it liberally. Every story has its funny bits, even if the humor is of a piquant, sad variety. In "Community Life," which is otherwise pretty much a kick to the solar plexus, an introverted librarian who likes to make up Tom Swifties at work recalls them even while her cheating, self-righteous activist boyfriend grovels for forgiveness: " 'I like a good sled dog,' she said huskily."

In "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," a mother on learning of her baby's cancer thinks, "Now, suddenly, alternative medicine seems the wacko maiden aunt to the Nice Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment ... Chemo? Of course: chemo! Why by all means: chemo. Absolutely! Chemo!"

But the trick that works for Moore every time, the one that knocks the story out of the park without exception, is the "Moment." Let's pretend just for a second that we're a publication that bestows titles on people. We would call Moore the Mistress of the Moment, because not since Joyce's "Little Cloud" has the epiphany been so distressing. When Moore uses it, it comes at the end of a story, and it accounts for a vague feeling of unfinished business, an "is that all there is?" kind of letdown that nonetheless is unmistakably an ending.

The secret lies in Moore's ethereal exit, the way she slows time, then floats away from a scene of mixed shock and pain with one last impersonal observation. The result is a still life stripped of romanticism, even the romanticism of unbearable pain. Moore's characters suffer terribly, but they suffer in silence without glory or drama.

One story in particular deserves mention for its departure from Moore's usual formula. "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" is the story of the hell the parents of a sick baby go through. Written in present tense, peppered with spiky, ironic asides, the story carries a sense of immediacy, tension and drama missing from the other stories, partly because so much of the action happens outside the narrating mother's head--and partly because of the looming sense that she's going to crack.

In spite of its intensity, the story feels freer than the other narratives. It's the best piece in a book of exquisitely crafted stories that, even if they're devastating, at least have the grace to be compelling.

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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