BOOK: Lorrie Moore's inspired choice of the word Bark as the title for her collection of eight short stories suggests so many sounds and sights — the explosive yawp of a dog, the harsh command of a boss to an underling, a parent's angry rebuke of a child, the rough skin of a tree, the simple boat that Charon uses to ferry people across the River Styx to Hades.
Moore herself overtly points to several of these meanings in her stories. The aging singer in "Wings" has been "barking up the wrong tree" for years. A character in "Thank You for Having Me," upon viewing a human brain, refers to its infolded "outer bark." The story that opens the collection, about the end of a 15-year marriage, is titled "Debarking." The story contains a poignant summary about this all-too-common misfortune: "Divorce is a trauma," says Ira, the hapless protagonist. "Its pain is a national secret! ... I can't let go of love. I can't live without love in my life." In contrast, the spurned wife in "Paper Losses" denies the fact that she has been rejected by her husband, and entertains the possibility that he has a brain tumor, or perhaps "space alien" genes. She simply can't understand how their old, lusty love has mutated into rage, producing, one assumes, a lot of barking at each other.
In short, these stories are full of the very things that "bark" suggests when applied to people — the scratchy roughness of human relationships, loud and rude speech, abrupt departures (as from a sinking bark) and, of course, the perverse and self-lacerating activity generated by the neocortex, whose bite is often far worse than its benign, barklike appearance.
WHY READ? The payoff from Moore's stories comes not from a dynamic plot — most consist of ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people — and not from eloquent, artistic prose. Rather, she enlivens her work with zesty infusions of mordant wit and startling observations that provide a droll commentary on the awful unhappiness and disappointment that seeps into every human life. In "Thank You for Having Me," for example, the divorced mother's gaze fixates on the pastel dresses worn by the bridesmaids at an outdoor wedding in the type of Midwestern farm country that Moore, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for 30 years before moving to Vanderbilt University, actually inhabited: One dress was "the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam (an anti-anxiety drug); the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam."
And the mother, thinking about her relationship with her 15-year-old "gorgeous giantess" of a daughter, observes that their conversations contained more sibling banter than they should have. As for her solitude, the mother muses that aloneness is "like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand."
Many of the laugh-out-loud lines are funny because they have pain at their core. In "Subject to Search," about the mother of a deranged son, Moore has the beleaguered woman observe that "Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope." Moore also puts these words in the mouth of the woman's lover, who accompanies her on a visit to the mental hospital: "If you're suicidal and you don't actually kill yourself, you become known as 'wry.' "
In other words, those who recognize and experience, to some degree, the desperation, disappointment and ongoing frustration of human existence had better embrace humor, as Moore so ardently does in these sad, funny and frequently disturbing stories.
MAKE IT: In honor of Moore's ingenious title, a discussion of her stories should include a little bark — not the harsh, rough kind that finds its way into her work, but something sweet and delightful, like chocolate bark.
Tom Valeo, Times correspondent
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.