Birds Of America

Dave Eggers reviews 'Birds of America' by Lorrie Moore

Topics: Lorrie Moore, Books,

The dust jacket of the hardcover “Birds of America,” while well-designed, is printed on uncoated paper, without a protective finish to ward off smudges, fingerprints, etc. So just carrying the book around for one day will leave it looking weathered, beaten, defeated, frumpy. Which is apt, given that Lorrie Moore’s characters are exactly that: weathered, beaten, defeated, frumpy.

Moore’s stories are about these things:

  • Longing
  • Suffering
  • People mistakenly dropping babies on their head in such a way that the baby dies
  • Depression, or at least life’s way of sort of stalling at middle age
  • Depression, or at least life’s way of sort of stalling during that period just before middle age
  • Depression, or at least life’s way of stalling at any age at all, really
  • Marriages and affairs that are hopeless but serviceable, like a scratchy, Army-issue blanket
  • Creature comforts in the face of unfaceable pathos
  • Lives that would warrant suicide if the owner could find the inspiration
  • Friends who make you laugh
  • Easy puns
  • At least one person per story with cancer
  • Perhaps a child with cancer, too

Still, though, it’s important to remember that Moore, while fascinated almost exclusively with broken people, is among the very funniest writers alive. She is known for this, and other writers are known for this, too, I guess, but there is perhaps no other writer who balances the two so precariously, so perfectly. She is God to her characters’ Job, throwing at them every conceivable calamity or handicap. In exchange, they get the great lines. For instance, the middle-aged gay man (who is also blind) in “What You Want to Do Fine,” burdened by thoughts of war — this is set just before the Gulf War — and mortality, goes on a road trip with his middle-aged, formerly straight-and-married lover, Mack, and nevertheless ends up attending an AIDS memorial and again and again driving through cemeteries. As a reward, at the St. Louis Arch, Moore allows them this exchange:

“Describe the view to me,” says Quilty when they get out at the top. Mack looks out through the windows. “Adequate,” he says.

Before this, Moore has done the following: First there was “Self-Help” (short stories, all sad, all funny); then there was “Anagrams” (a novel, despairing, hopeless, hilarious); then “Like Life” (more stories, largely interchangeable with those in “Self Help,” small slices of unassuming tragicomedy). Then came a second novel, “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” a coming-of-age story about two young girls, which was, like all of her work, carefully and often gorgeously written, but also sort of soft, and perhaps too wistful, and maybe not so rich in detail. It was not so funny. And it was not so mean.

But she is both funny and mean in “Birds of America,” her new collection of stories, 12 of them, and this is good. Here the extremes are more extreme. Here the wit is more savage and the compassion more breathtaking. And here the formal experiments are more daring, and more successful. In “Real Estate,” a woman reflects on her husband’s various mistresses:

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Of course, it had always been the spring that she discovered her husband’s affairs. But the last one was years ago, and what did she care about all that now? There had been a parade of flings — in the end, they’d made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

It goes on like that for two pages. Just the “Ha!”s, for two pages. The passage rounds out with this: “The key to marriage, she concluded, was just not to take the thing too personally.”

Resigned, heartbreaking, all that. Even so, while Moore’s characters are beaten and weathered, cuckolded and tired, even while, by the way, the woman who has accepted her husband’s philandering also has cancer, these stories are, to the last, nothing if not affirming, nothing if not joyful. How?

That’s unclear. But know this: That she achieves this balance again and again — while stretching her wings stylistically and broadening her palette in this, far and away, her best book — is itself affirming. And joyous.

Dave Eggers is the author of "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

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