by Ben Austen)
Lorrie Moore orders the fried cheese curds, unable to resist the joke. “I’m having a Proustian journey back to Wisconsin,” she says, as she pushes a forkful of the curds into her mouth. Moore, 57, is the much-revered author of three novels and now a fourth short-story collection, Bark, out this week. After teaching at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for the past 30 years, she has just relocated to Nashville for a job at Vanderbilt University. She’s been there all of four weeks when we meet at Pinewood Social, a restaurant–bar–coffee shop–bowling alley set in a converted trolley barn along the Cumberland River.
Before Vanderbilt began its courtship of Moore, finally enticing her to join its creative-writing faculty in January, she had visited Nashville only once. The book tour for Birds of America, which established Moore as a master of the short-story form, brought her there in 1998, long before the city’s honky-tonks began to make way for the Pinewood Socials. Moore is an upstate New York native, and her speaking voice is a sing-songy soprano that dances between registers as if following the flight of a bee. But she does a fine Tennessee accent as she recalls the manager at a Borders bookstore announcing over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lorrie Morgan is in the store, so come and get your signature from Lorrie Morgan.” Customers hustled over with the country singer’s CDs in hand. “I had a lot of disappointed people, but they were very polite.”
Moore is polite, too, already a picture of southern hospitality. Upon our meeting, she hands me a bagful of glazed and jelly-filled doughnuts from the campus Dunkin’ Donuts to give to my children. As we talk, she bends low over my recorder, worried about the bad acoustics from the arching ceilings. Moore’s stories, by contrast, are full of awkward interactions, a combination of humor and pain that emerges as characters try and fail to connect with one another. She is the bard of the bad date.
In Bark, Moore’s people are often divorced, the victims of midlife crises. The absurdities of their recklessness and the burdens of their solitude have only intensified with age. Moore, who is divorced herself, says she personally knows almost nothing about dating but merely observes. “There’s trauma in life,” she explains about both her characters and the human predicament, “and then there’s a slight relaxation, and that allows for a recognition of how displaced you are. Pulling slightly away, you see this is crazy and kind of funny and also painful and horrifying.”
Critics often say that Moore’s work is full of puns. “I get a bad rep for that,” Moore responds. “Everyone I know tries to be funny.” She adds that the closeness of comedy and suffering is simply part of “the truth of human experience.” Ronald Reagan, she tells me, cracked jokes after he was shot in 1981 and was being wheeled into surgery; she read that chimps after they’re taught to sign almost immediately form puns. “There were jokes told in the concentration camps in Germany. I’ll tell you one after the tape recorder is off.”
Bark was a long time coming. The first of the eight stories that compose the collection was completed back in 2003, as the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq. That story’s central character, a man in the throes of his “postdivorce hysteria” and only beginning to date, wonders from the safety of his small midwestern town about “all the deeply wrong erotic attachments made in wartime, all the crazy romances cooked up quickly by the species to offset death.” “I’m such a slow writer,” Moore says almost apologetically. (Never mind that she also wrote a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, during the time she was working on Bark.) “A proper story writer would have many more collections. What does Alice Munro have, like 14?”
“I’m teaching Munro this semester, so she is very much on my mind,” says Moore. For instance: When she praises the “spiritual ambiguity” in the writing of Edward P. Jones, she explains, “If Munro is our Chekhov, then Edward Jones is our Alice Munro.”
Teaching preoccupies her, too. “A surprising number go on to be writers,” she says of her graduate students. “But when you teach undergrads, you don’t expect any of them to be writers.” Instead, “you make them the future readers of America. By discussing stories, they’re learning about human nature, what it is to fall in love and discover evil in someone. They’re covering all the big philosophical and emotional questions.”
Moore also finds those questions worth thinking through in pop culture. She has written essays for the New York Review of Books about Friday Night Lights—with a particular fixation on “Tim Riggins, handsome as a statue and bleakly craving goodness”—Homeland, and The Wire, all well after their arrival on the cultural scene and yet somehow still definitive. She watched the latter in three days. “Night and day. My son was at camp,” she says. Her voice softens maternally. “It’s not good, what happens to Wallace,” referring to the baby-faced drug dealer played by Michael B. Jordan. After finishing her binge, Moore couldn’t find anything worth reading on the series. So she wrote to Bob Silvers, her longtime editor at the NYRB, and he gave her the Wire assignment.
Silvers recently sent Moore press credentials without any particular outcome in mind. “They’re like, ‘This is Nashville, Tennessee! It’s got to be crazy down there. Write back and tell us what’s going on.’ ” So far, she hasn’t come across anything too nuts. “Four weeks in, already my eyes are not so fresh.” Dogs are big here, she says, comparing the new terrain with Madison. Also: “Valet parking. Lots of valet parking, and a lot of it is free.” She considers more. “I’ve never seen a town that has so many houses and buildings that have been beautifully built in the last five to ten years to resemble old architecture.”
For now, these are just stray observations. “It’s too hectic for real writing now,” she laments, what with her move and classes and the upcoming book tour, but she’ll get back to it. “We’ll see if Nashville changes my writing. A change is always good for a writer.”
“Debarking,” an excerpt from Bark
Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends. “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.” The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine.
“Maybe I should cut off the whole hand. And send it to her,” he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society. “She’ll understand the reference.”
Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux—hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter. “That sucker went up really fast,” he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility. “So fast. Maybe it was, I don’t know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid.”
“You’ll remove that ring when you’re ready,” Mike said now.