Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America

by Jess

I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.  I’m reading it armed with a pencil to mark particularly rich or exuberant passages, so as to learn how to improve scene, dialog, characterization.  I’m underlining a lot.

Moore’s prose is dashing and unexpected and very funny.  She has this way of using incredibly vivid, startling descriptions, like, “It was a beautiful hand, like an old and expensive piece of wood.”  Her characters interact in awkward, heart-wrenching, hilarious ways.  Meet Agnes, the protagonist of “Agnes of Iowa”:

There was a brief period in her life, in her mid-twenties, when she had tried to pass it off as French — she had put in the accent gave and encouraged people to call her ‘On-yez.’  This was when she was living in New York City …  She would meet a lot of not very bright rich people who found the pronunciation of her name intriguing.  It was the rest of her they were unclear on.  ‘On-yez, where are you from, dear?’ asked a black-slacked, frosted-haired woman who skin was papery and melanomic with suntan.  ‘Originally.’  She eyed Agnes’s outfit as if it might be what in fact it was: a couple of blue things purchased in a department store in Cedar Rapids.

‘Where am I from?’  Agnes said it softly.  ‘Iowa.’  She had a tendency not to speak up.

Where?’  The woman scowled, bewildered.

‘Iowa,’ Agnes repeated loudly.

The woman in black touched Agnes’s wrist and leaned in confidentially.  She moved her mouth in a concerned and exaggerated way, like a facial exercise.  ‘No, dear,’ she said, ‘Here we say O-hi-o.’

In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” Aileen is in mourning for her recently departed cat Bert.  Her husband Jack is concerned.

‘I think you should see someone,’ said Jack.

‘Are we talking a psychiatrist or an affair.’

‘An affair of course,’ Jack scowled.  ‘An affair?’

‘I don’t know.’  Aileen shrugged.  The whiskey she’d been drinking lately had caused her joints to swell, so that now when she lifted her shoulders, they just kind of stayed like that, stiffly, up around her ears.

Jack rubbed her upper arm, as if he either loved her or was wiping something off her sleeve.

I love it.  The first story in the collection, “Willing,” is one of my favorites.  Some may find her characters a little too morose, but they’re just so snarky about it, that they redeem themselves.  I’ve read some not great things about her more recent work, but Birds of America is a triumph.