In her justly famous story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” Lorrie Moore has a woman wondering if her baby’s cancer is punishment — for maternal missteps iterated in an awful, hilarious passage punctuated with, “But it was a joke!” and, “A joke, for God’s sake!” and, “Another joke! These jokes will kill you!”
Of course, it’s not the jokes that’ll kill you. But something will, so you might as well die laughing. Moore’s stories, past and again in this new slim collection, are haunted by eventualities and inevitability — not necessarily of death (though there’s always that), but of romances flagging and ambitions fizzling, youth squandered and families burst at the seams. In short, of life’s stories, which are marked by indifference and tend to end badly.
It’s a bleak vision, one that Moore’s characters are holding off with desperate wit and flickers of warmth and generally hopeless attempts to reshape or evade the stories life is scripting for them. (After all, “Plots are for dead people, pore face,” as a narrator has it in an earlier story, “How to Be a Writer.” Another joke!) And so it is here, where even if the same sort of wisecracking comes from every sort of character, the effect is poignant and the pull irresistible.
Ira, in the first and maybe best story here, six months after his divorce still can’t get his wedding ring off. (“I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed,” he tells his friends.) Then again, we learn a little later, “Actually, he had once gotten the ring off in a hot bath” — but that doesn’t suit his story, in which he can’t see his way unmarried. In Moore’s story, though, he’s trying, he’s dating, and then making a stab at a new relationship — unfortunately, with a woman far more damaged than he is. And that the end for Ira, a Jew, occurs on Easter, when he finds himself in a bar drunkenly and hysterically toasting the resurrection, is an irony within an irony, but no less sad for that.
Elsewhere, a woman has resisted knowing that her husband is cheating on her, and that he’s truly divorcing her. Upon finally realizing this, she at once casts ahead to, “Later, when she had learned to tell this story differently, as a story.”
In “Subject to Search,” a story about two people who, after a near lifetime of missed chances, have found each other, but only for a moment, the man concludes, “We’re all suckers for a happy ending” — but this being a flashback, we already know how that works out.
Kind of the way it does in “Referential,” a heartbreaking story, in which a woman’s “deranged son” has proved too much for the man in her life. She answers the phone after two hang-ups and wonders: “What would burst forth? A monkey’s paw. A lady. A tiger.
“But there was nothing at all.”
Please make a joke.
Ellen Akins (ellenakins.com) teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.