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'Birds Of America' by Lorrie Moore

Moore populates her fiction with real people

Thursday, January 01, 1998

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Birds Of America

By Lorrie Moore



Have you ever looked at fellow human beings in this world — say, a man holding his child — and felt, for no reason and for every reason, like laughing out loud and crying?

I’m sure Lorrie Moore does, all the time.

She’s made me feel that way a lot but never more so than while reading her latest collection of short stories, “Birds of America.”

I’m no Moore authority. But since a young writer friend turned me on to her a couple of years ago, I’ve devoured her every word. So have a lot of people, as Moore has bloomed into one of America’s finest writers of so-called fiction.

Her stories and the characters that people them are true, and — like life itself — hilarious and sad, often at the same moment.

All but one of these dozen stories first appeared elsewhere — seven of them in The New Yorker, including “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

In this heart-wrenching piece, remarkable because the reader immediately knows it’s at least semi-autobiographical, a mother discovers a blood clot in her baby’s diaper — “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” Like that, she and her husband and baby have to face the unthinkable: Cancer.

“The Husband now lies next to her in bed, sighing. ‘Poor little guy could survive all this, only to be killed in a car crash at the age of sixteen,’ he says.

“The Mother, bargaining, considers this. ‘We’ll take the car crash,’ she says.

“ ‘What?’

“ ‘Let’s Make a Deal! Sixteen is a full life! We’ll take the car crash. We’ll take the car crash, in front of which Carol Merrill is now standing.’ ”

This story is first-place winner in the O. Henry Awards and leads off that collection of “Prize Stories 1998” (Anchor, $11.95).

Moore’s other stories are just as poignant portrayals of people dealing with each other, dealing with life.

In “Terrific Mother,” a 35-year-old woman is coping with baby anxiety of a different sort, after falling and killing a friend’s infant.

In the gorgeously moving “Dance in America,” a dance teacher connects with an old friend, his wife, and their 7-year-old, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis.

In “Real Estate,” an older woman, dying with cancer, tries to get her house in order — that is, a pest-infested old house that she’s renovating with no help from her philandering pest of a husband.

Lest this sound too depressing, know that these characters (like Moore) almost always have a sense of humor, even if it is a bit dark. In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” even in the depths of having lost her beloved cat, Bert, Aileen can respond to her husband telling her she should see someone with, “Are we talking a psychiatrist or an affair?”

In “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” (don’t you love these titles?), a pushy Pittsburgh mother invites herself to visit Ireland with her marriage-fleeing daughter, Abby, who faces negotiating the famous stone and even weightier blarney.

First, Abby has to worry if her engine-revving mom can negotiate the roads in their rented stick-shift Fiesta. “Abby felt sick from the flight; and sitting on what should be the driver’s side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something.”

But Moore deftly steers the tale from the comedy of this mother-daughter duo to the rich-as-Guinness emotion of the ending.

Every story contains great lines, ranging from quips to longer passages like this from “Real Estate”:

“Every house is a grave, thought Ruth. All that life-stealing fuss and preparation. Which made moving from a house a resurrection — or an exodus of ghouls, depending on your point of view — and made moving to a house (yet another house!) the darkest of follies and desires. At best, it was a restlessness come falsely to rest.”

Also from “Real Estate”:

“She was especially stirred by a movie she saw about a beautiful widow who fell in love with a space alien who had assumed human form — the form of the woman’s long-lost husband! Eventually, however, the man had to go back to his real home. … To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: Someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet. Certainly it had been true for Terence. Terence had gotten on a spaceship and gone back long ago. Although, of course, in real life you seldom saw the actual spaceship. Usually, there was just a lot of drinking, mumbling and some passing out in the family room. ”

In the end, Moore’s stories are so good because you know them, and know the people in them. Reading through “Charades” — say, the part where one game-playing sister opines that the hall photographs of her siblings are better than hers — you might even say, “Hey, that’s my family,” or, “That’s me.”

The laughing and crying are great clues.

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