Lorrie Moore, Birds of America



Lorrie Moore, Birds of America – I read this a few years ago when my friend Matt lent it to me, and I remember liking it very much; but since I just had a general sense of liking it, without remembering any specific stories, I thought it might be a good idea to re-read it, since I’ve been looking for a good book to read after a string of unsatisfying reads. Oddly, I hardly liked it as much this time around; maybe the fact that I couldn’t remember a single story should have been a red flag (the same thing happened with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Weird.

Moore’s characters are like John Updike’s – American middle-class, middle-aged, troubled marriages, intellectual or semi-intellectual, easily capable of making witty, wry remarks that come off as unnatural. The book has 12 stories in it, each about 20-25 pages long, a good length for a story to reasonably flesh out its characters (the stories in the second half of the book are longer than those in the first half, very clever – save those for the readers with patience to make it that far). Since the book is called Birds Of America, most of the stories make a mention or two of birds (which makes me wonder if Moore called the collection that after realizing the common theme, or if she set out to do something like this in the first place; chicken or egg; I think it’s probably the former, but it may be the latter too; there, that’s a Lorrie Moore-ism, ha ha ha…). The first story, “Willing”, is about a washed up Hollywood actress who leaves Hollywood behind to live an anonymous life in Chicago, meets Joe Sixpack, who cheats on her. At the end of the book she turns into a bird, but not after some amusing phone calls with her gay buddy in California. Sidra, pushing 40, is a sympathetic character, I liked her very much, and am fascinated by the thought that she threw herself out that window, kind of like Marianne Faithfull’s mentally ill lover. “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is about a woman who’s having trouble with her marriage who travels around Ireland with her mother, eventually visiting the Blarney Stone. Nice story, not sure what it was trying to tell me. “Dance In America” is a short story about a dancer. “Community Life” is about a sarcastic Romanian librarian who hooks up with a phony grassroots who cheats on her (everybody cheats on everybody else, usually for not good reason at all). “Agnes Of Iowa” is about an unattractive girl from Iowa who fails at an attempt to build a life for herself in New York City, then moves back to Iowa, marries a man older than herself, and tries to conceive as their marriage becomes loveless and fails. Banal decades are filled with heartfelt yearnings. She falls in love with a South African poet (?!?!). “Charades” is a confusing story about a bunch of friends and family who play charades one Saturday night (I think this is a regular type of event). It seems to be a metaphor for something, but I’m not clever enough to figure it out. Maybe I’ll re-read this story (if I don’t add to this entry it means that I have not re-read it…). “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” refers both to the “12 Days Of Christmas” song and birds in America. Very clever, very (fairly?) self conscious. The story is about an odd woman called Aileen who loves her dead cat more than she loves her husband or her daughter (why would pathetic people like this marry?). Aileen and Jack go around having ironic conversations.

“I think you should see someone.”
“Are we talking a psychologist or an affair?”
“An affair, of course,” Jack scowled. “An affair!”

“Just go talk to someone,” he said. “Our health plan will cover part.”
Okay,” she said. “Okay. Just – no more metaphors.”

The psychologist is found, one who works on a project basis and guarantees results by Christmas, and there’s more witty conversation. “Beautiful Grade” is even more Updike-ian (or is it Irving-ian?), it’s about divorced academics and their friends, one of whom is dating his student, and what becomes of this affair; there’s also a Yugoslavian wife of a Texan professor who’s lusted upon and affaired with within this shallow university clique. Honestly – what kind of a world does Lorrie Moore inhabit that she gets these sorts of inspirations? Is this Graham Greene? Is this Hemingway? Is this Virginia Woolf or Mary Shelly?

“What You Want To Do Is Fine” is something a little different (finally!), it’s a story about a blind man and his lover, a straight is trying something new after his wife ran off, taking their daughter with her. They wander around the US, spouting wry commentary. “Real Estate” is about yet another troubled middle-aged couple – I hardly need to read these stories to know what they’re about – the husband has had affairs, the wife Ruth doesn’t want to leave him, she develops cancer, they sell their house and have misadventures finding and then getting used to their new house, which has pests (including a squatter that they discover months after moving in!!!). She then develops an interest in firearms. The story then tries to be different by reproducing two pages of “ha ha ha ha ha” at the start, which is appreciated. Love it; not like the closing of Portnoy’s Complaint (even I know that) at all. There’s a seemingly-superfluous subplot about another man whose wife leaves him because he can’t name a single song, much less sing it, who goes around robbing middle-aged families, trying to learn songs from them. That thing, about how Ruth was getting into firearms, becomes important at this point. “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” is about Mother, Father and Baby, who are never named. Baby has baby cancer, Mother and Father spend the next weeks or months with the heroes in pediatric oncology (peed onk) coping. It ends well – the baby never really had cancer. Oh, ha ha… “Terrific Mother” is about a wry, motherless woman who is being pursued by a bearded academic who takes her to Italy on an academic retreat with scholars from across Academia (the guy who’s written six books on The Canterbury Tales, the sociologist who gauges the reaction of people after they’re told that the chef has AIDS, yes yes yes. The relationship goes nowhere, and I’m hardly surprised…

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