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Lorrie Moore’s Bark sways between humor and pathos

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Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature last year may have signaled a much-deserved celebration of the short story, but it’s no secret to fans of the genre: A good short story is at least as satisfying as a long novel. The shorter form might seem confining, but in the right hands, the length begets a kind of freedom. And, undoubtedly, Lorrie Moore has the right hands. Though she’s won acclaim for full-length novels like 2009’s A Gate At The Stairs, her best work is in the shorter genre; where Gate suffered from too many plot threads, her short stories are perfectly contained moments, neither too allusive nor too literal.

Her latest collection, Bark, is Moore’s first book of short stories since 1998’s Birds Of America. The short and spare stories—there are only eight, the longest of which is about 40 pages—cover her usual territory, swaying between humor and pathos as she explores not-quite-everyday situations: dating after divorce, fighting about politics at a fundraising dinner, visiting the ghost of a dead friend.

Moore’s voice, dry and insightful and beautiful, is more of a cohesive element than any thematic similarities, though the characters often share the kind of psychological clumsiness that comes from facing an uncomfortable situation. “Debarking,” one of the strongest entries, delves into the traps and trials of dating after divorce, and delightfully captures the uneasiness of blending families, especially those that include teenage children. Ira, the protagonist, begins dating Zora, an eccentric pediatrician with a teenaged son named Bruno, and Moore juxtaposes his fears of dating with the buildup to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even with material like this, she avoids the pitfall of heavy-handedness, and retains the subtlety that makes the characters believable. In “Foes,” Moore looks closely at an awkward situation at a political fundraiser and uses mismatched tablemates to explore the two-sided coin of attraction and revulsion. The lone ghost story is less of a departure than it might seem; though not a typically eerie ghost story, “The Juniper Tree” is still haunting with three friends going to the house of a recently deceased friend to say goodbye. Moore’s dark humor works well here—“‘How can that be?’ ‘You know women and their houses,’ said Pat. ‘It’s hard for them to part company.’”—and the climax of the story involves not a sobbing farewell, but an awkward rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Because she’s exploring the same issues of humanity and discomfort as she does in the rest of the collection, even a ghost story feels at home here.

Moore can construct a gorgeous sentence, but more often, the stories in Bark focus on the moment or event rather than micro-level beauty. It’s not a bad trade-off, and it demonstrates the muscle behind her words, but the stories don’t have the same loveliness as did Birds Of America. Bark is slimmer than her previous work, and that’s where it suffers: Though the best of the stories leave a delightful aftertaste, there’s often not enough to chew on. Still, it’s better to be left wanting more.