There are eight stories in Lorrie Moore's new collection, but only two of them really stand out. Moore's one of the country's most admired writers – and maybe I was so dazzled by the brilliance and power of the two longest stories in these pages that I couldn't read the other pieces — which I found either a little off-kilter or too subtly played — without feeling a certain amount of loss. But my possibly cock-eyed view of Bark is that it's a book, or at least half a book, that anyone who loves contemporary fiction should have a go at. It shows off a true advance of Moore's powers and offers some first-rate reading pleasure.
Bark is the outermost layer of trees and plants and roots, and it's also the expressive sound of a dog. The former definition certainly makes sense in relation to Ira, the divorcing mid-western main character of the near-forty page lead story, "Debarking." Within a page or two Moore has begun to strip clean this ordinary Jewish guy who hasn't committed any sins in his marriage — except marrying someone who did — which means he's like most divorcing men.
Ira has been divorced for six months, the opening line informs us, and still can't get his wedding ring off. He jokes with friends that he might have to remove the finger or maybe the whole hand. He has "already ceremoniously set fire to his dove-gray wedding tux — hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter."
Ira doesn't have to do more than accept an invitation from some Catholic friends to a dinner kicking off Lent to spark his real ignition — as he wryly asserts, he'll be the token Jew at the meal. There'll be a divorcee there, his friends mention, but they're not trying to fix him up. So he accepts the invite for the Lent meal. Easter? "I'll reenact the whole thing for you," says Ira, nearly hysterical. "Yessirree. I'll come over and show you all how it's done."
He means crucifixion, and so does Lorrie Moore. Before the holiday's over Ira's stumbled into an affair with Zora, a pediatrician and the promised divorcee. In his eyes she's "very beautiful: short black hair; eyes a clear, reddish hazel, like orange pekoe tea, a strong acquiline nose, probably a snorer; thick lashes that spiked out wrought and black as the tines of a fireplace fork." Ouch! But Ira doesn't mind the tines of pain that Zora has in store for him. He seems to consider it as his natural state. By the time the story's over he's stripped of an outer layer of dignity and intelligence, alone in a crowd at a local bar, barking, barking, barking until someone among the boozers wants to slap him down.
I hope you don't think I've spoiled this story for you. It's not fiction built to deliver suspense; rather, it's modern pathetic comedy of the roughest sort. And in its beginning — Ira's little workout on self-dismemberment — lies its end. Yes, he's shown us how it's done, in painfully detailed and excruciatingly awful fashion.
In the second long story, "Wings," we get a bravura performance, this time with a woman at the center — this is equal opportunity unbarking. KC, as she's known, is the female singer in a not very successful musical duo, the other performer being a loutish – and not very terrific — musician and moocher named Dench, with whom she's been cohabiting for a while. Too long! This lout has dragged her so low financially that she even wishes he'd turn to selling drugs as a way to get them out of their troubles. He wishes she would soft-soap an old man in their neighborhood and get written into his will. But the discomfort of their private life, and the wreckage and embarrassments of their public life are things that money can't fix — even if they had some.
KC is turning slowly to face the recognitions of middle-age, something not easy for her to gaze upon. And it takes a while for her to come to terms with the changes in her voice and the possibility of a life outside the narrow world of her failing artistic vocation. How she meets the challenges of life with Dench, and immediately without him, makes for one of the most memorable portraits of a modern woman I have ever read. It throws my mind back to the best work of Katherine Ann Porter. It throws a punch — and makes the rest of the shorter stories in this collection pale by comparison — as hard as the one KC at long-last throws at Dench. Pick up this book just for these two stories and you'll be barking up the right tree.