Birds of America came out in 1998, Lorrie Moore’s third collection of short stories. The twelve stories in this book follow the lives of unwilling East Coast transplants to the Midwest, people with terminal illnesses, people in relationships and marriages that have twisted and gone wrong, families that have slowly grown unbearable. And yet each story is told with hyper-real vivacity, wit, satire. Lorrie Moore is known for her zingers, her stand-up comedy one-liners about the way life works. The heroine of “Agnes of Iowa” tells her husband why she still misses New York, seven years later: “Everyone tried hard to be funny. It was like brains having sex. It was like every brain was a sex maniac.” Or Bill, who, after his divorce, is dating one of his students:
Albert sized up Bill’s weight loss and slight tan, the sprinkle of freckles like berry seeds across Bill’s arms, the summer whites worn way past Labor Day in the law school’s cavernous, crowded lecture halls, and he said, “Well, then, some people might think it a mishandling of your position.” He paused, put his arm around Bill. “But hey, I think it has made you look very — tennisy.”
Bill shoved his hands in his pockets. “You mean the whole kindness of strangers thing?”
But of course these zingers wouldn’t zing if they weren’t grounded in sadness. These stories wind their way through desperation and grief, loneliness and heartache, and about half the time, they miss any chance of liberation or redemption. (Like life, I suppose, which is in fact the title of another of Moore’s short-story collections.)
To be honest, I think these stories suffered from my own overblown expectations. I have heard for years that Lorrie Moore is the greatest short-story writer of our generation, that she is precise, funny, heartbreaking, and perfect, that she uses language befitting the gods and tells of our modern times as if you were seeing yourself in the mirror. It made me think of that David Mitchell quotation: “This is why I don’t think I’ll ever watch The Wire — it literally cannot be as good as people say unless it turns out not to be a TV programme but a cream-cake-bottle-of-whiskey-orgasm-combo.” These stories simply couldn’t have been as good as I’d heard.
But even given that, I still think they were genuinely flawed. I found some of them shallow, contemptuous of the people they examined. I love wit and satire, but I prefer it to have a great heart underneath, an understanding, for instance, that Midwesterners are people, too. Several of these stories seemed to have wit at the expense of humanity. Plus, there was an awful lot of terminal illness, though that, too, is like life, I suppose.
But. And I really mean this. The last two stories, “People Like That Are The Only People Here” and “Terrific Mother,” make up for it all. The first is (again!) a story of serious illness, a Baby with kidney cancer, a Mother who is a writer but cannot write this, a Husband, the Surgeon. It’s about the overwhelming unfairness, the madness of life, the way people fall into roles, blame themselves, love fiercely. It’s a gorgeous story. She won awards for it, and she should have. And “Terrific Mother” has another (!) child in jeopardy, another woman full of grief and doubt, but the story finally winds through that acid wit to a release and a new chance at tenderness and forgiveness.
On balance, these stories were worth reading. But if you’re in a hurry, skip to the end.