Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore
My Dad passed away more than couple of years back. He’d been sick; his kidneys had failed and the transplant went poorly, so he was in dialysis three days a week. He had to sit still for three or four hours with a needle in his fistula. He bought a CD player that played mp3’s, longer play that way. And he dramatically increased his book habit. He was often tired when he came home, the dialysis doesn’t just remove the bad stuff from your blood, but it strips the good stuff, too. He read at least 8 hours a day at that point, like a full time job. Books piled up in the cellar. He bought steel shelves to store them.
My Mom’s been donating them to the local library, but she recently gave me the chance to poke through the most recent batch to see if I wanted any. I took a couple I’d been eyeing on Amazon, but were lower in my queue, like Unbroken, or The Time Traveller’s Wife. Then there was Cormac McCarthy, who I always meant to read, so I grabbed three of them. But there were also a couple that I’d probably never buy but felt I should pretend to have read, a book of TS Elliot poems, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feinman. Then there was this book called Birds of America.
The back cover read, “a startlingly brilliant series of portraits of the young, the hip, the lost, the unsettled and the unhinged of modern-day America.” Clearly, not my genre, but since I was in the mood for expanding horizons, I figured eh, why not. I cracked the cover and started reading “Willing”, the first story, about a depressed 30-something actress escaping Hollywood and falling for an auto mechanic in Chicago. If someone had suggested a short story collection with that kind of introduction, I don’t think I would ever have tried it. The first couple of pages were so extremely not my cuppa that I almost put it back on the steel shelf to be donated to the Ventress Memorial. But I had a mild case of insomnia.
I read on. And then a little more. And then another story. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You don’t get published in The New Yorker if you’re a hack. But I’ve read The New Yorker and been disappointed. What was different about Ms. Moore’s stories is the turns of phrase, and the satisfying endings. The writing is witty without being pretentious, the stories are emotional without being depressing. She grants the reader sharply focused glimpses into the characters’ lives, but doesn’t dwell too long. Each story is between 4,000 and 8,000 words, long enough for the discursive tangents to be eye-catching but not self indulgent. They are mostly stories about love. The main characters are women, usually.
I liked it so much I just bought her first collection, Self Help.