LORRIE MOORE writes perfect short stories. When you've finished reading one—in the collections Birds of America or Self-Help or her newest, Bark—you never feel as though you've just read a truncated novel or a fleshed-out poem. Her best stories are internally complete, balanced in a sort of oppositional tension between wit, compassion, and insights so clear-eyed they're nearly cruel.
The eight stories in Bark are mostly—but not entirely—about how and if romantic love can weather middle age. The not-quite title story, "Debarking," is the collection's most satisfying; it's about a middle-aged man, Ira, trying to date again after his recent divorce. "Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people's charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself," Moore writes, as Ira falls under the spell of a pretty-but-kinda-deranged pediatrician. "When it was directed at him, the person just seemed so totally nice."
Or this, of Ira's well-meaning, daffily liberal friends: "There were no natural predators in this small, oblivious, and tolerant community, and so strange creatures and creations abounded." Far from this gently quirky setting and Ira's romantic struggles, bombs have just started falling on Iraq. The war provides a sort of shadowy backdrop that doesn't touch Ira's life directly, serving instead as a prop that helps to keep his own affairs in perspective. He kind of knows it, too; he doesn't feel great about it.
If you've never read Moore, Birds of America is a better place to start; it's showier, more virtuosic. But Bark is a strong collection, full of sentences that make you laugh even if the stories they're telling aren't particularly funny. And if you're left wanting more—more of Moore's prose, more of her characters, more of what happens next—that wanting is built into the stories, too. It's even the moral of some of them: Just because we want more doesn't mean we get to have it.