Birds of America

by Lorrie Moore

Published by Knopf

291 pages, 1998

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Birds of Lorrie Moore

Reviewed by Holly Kulak


"A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby's diaper... It is big and bright, with a broken khaki colored vein in it... So what is this thing, startling against the white paper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?"

This passage from the award winning short story, "People Like That are the only People Here", is just one example of the skillful, vivid, and astonishingly good writing found in Lorrie Moore's most recent collection of short fiction, Birds of America. The book is a triumphant literary endeavor that ponders themes of human displacement -- geographical, emotional, and psychological. All 12 stories are dense with fresh imagery, unique humor, and compelling characters.

In "Willing", an aging Hollywood actress flees to Chicago and takes up residence in a seedy Days Inn room that is "L-shaped, like a life veering off suddenly to become something else." Eventually, her troubles culminate in a doomed affair with a mechanic. Moore's writing bristles along almost whimsically, then smacks the reader with acute statements that capture the essence of the woman's self-destructive tendencies: "There were small dark pits of annihilation she discovered in her heart, in the loosening fist of it, and she threw herself into them, falling."

In another story, "Which is More Than I Can Say About Some People", Moore takes an original, often hilarious approach to a complex topic: mothers and daughters. In this piece, Abby escapes her dull husband by traveling to Ireland, wondering how her mother ended up along for the journey. She is mildly resentful of her mother's spirited, seemingly indomitable nature; yet, on an excursion to the famous Blarney Stone, Abby discovers her mother's frailties: "As her mother tried to inch herself back toward the stone, Abby... saw that this fierce bonfire of a woman had gone twitchy and melancholic -- it was a ruse, all her formidable display. She was only trying to prove something, trying pointlessly to defy and overcome her fears -- instead of just learning to live with them...."

The emotional breakdown of a young woman transplanted to a college town is the subject of one of Moore's darker stories, "Community Life". Fresh from Transylvania, the woman becomes involved with an older local who likes to dismiss his infidelity as "a sixties thing." Moore uses a scene involving bats to illuminate the emotional disintegration of the young woman, who begins perceiving the community as her nemesis. What's even more disturbing is the woman's awareness of the community's hypocrisy. "This lunge at moral fastidiousness was something she'd noticed a lot in the people around here. They were not good people. They were not kind. They played around and lied to their spouses. But they recycled their newspapers!"

In "Agnes of Iowa", Moore deftly conveys the crisis of life's realities through the title character, whose mother gave her the name because she believed "...a good looking woman was even more striking when her name was a homely one." Unfortunately, Agnes turned out to be ugly. Nonetheless, she tries for a sophisticated life in New York City, attending parties in TriBeCa lofts, pronouncing her name so that it sounds exotic ("On-yez"). Eventually she returns home to Cassel, Iowa, and embarks on a conventional life of lowered expectations -- unhappily married, unable to conceive, teaching a Great Books night class which leads to further disillusionment when she begins fantasizing about a visiting writer from South Africa.

In a longer story, "Real Estate", Moore examines the ephemeral "fix" that comes from focusing on externalities when an unhappily married couple buy a new place, only to discover that "Every house is a grave." Here, Moore showcases one of her salient literary strengths, offering up similes that make her prose seem effortlessly stylish and a bit brazen; for instance, when the wife drives by her old home in a fit of nostalgia she eyes it "like a pervert."

Lorrie Moore is an entertaining, imaginative writer who probes universal preoccupations with insight, humor, and inestimable wit. Birds of America is a wonderful read, candidly exploring preoccupations akin to a passage in her story, "Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens": "Life is a long journey across a wide country... Sometimes the weather's good. Sometimes it's bad. Sometimes it's so bad, your car goes off the road." | May 1999


HOLLY KULAK studied journalism at Ryerson though she ended up with a degree in liberal arts. Currently living and writing in Victoria, British Columbia, Kulak has spent time in Alaska, Alberta, and Florida where she skulked around Orlando and Key West, in search of both Hemingway's and Kerouac's ghosts (to no avail).