People keep leaving their spouses and partners in Lorrie Moore's "Bark." Despair can be downright comic, and Ms. Moore helps us to laugh out loud at degradations, humiliations and false hopes. At least she does so in the first story, "Debarking," in which poor Ira, after six months of divorce, still can't get his wedding ring off. He's swollen up in the interim; so has his finger. He's a wheezing, sniffling, victimized jokester -- a familiar clown type -- in pain but always able to find the joke.
When a Goyim friend invites him to a Lenten dinner (something made up as an excuse for a party), Ira who is Jewish, goes around saying, "We didn't really intend it ... not really, not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away."
It would be difficult not to love Ira and to wish him well. So when he meets Zora who is alternately available and rude to him, we, like Ira, try to excuse the rudeness, ignore along with him the warning signs. She brings her sullen mean-spirited teenaged son Bruno along on dates.
She and Bruno have plenty more physical contact and horsing around than she and Ira have. They wrestle, they hip bump, they put Ira in the back seat of the car on the way to a movie they've invited him to. They let Ira pay for everything. Yet we keep hoping. Zora can play with words, make jokes -- in that way she and Ira are a match, right? When she describes the trouble with her first husband, she says, "He met a lass, alas."
Zora and Ira put us in familiar Lorrie Moore territory. There are ironies to be extracted from the English language -- or as the title of one jokey book called it decades ago, "The Anguish Languish."
It might be tempting to think life may be full of sadness, but jokes are always possible. Ms. Moore appears to have something else in mind this time around. The jokes become fewer and less funny as the collection continues. The characters reach too hard for humor in the latter stories. In a great example of the medium's being the message or the micro reflecting the macro, and vice versa, it becomes apparent that after a while the undertow of sadness beats the joking swimmer.
This is not to say we never laugh aloud again. We do. Ms. Moore can't help seeing the world in word-humor. She describes two roadway messages, one a billboard, the other a road sign: HOSPICE CARE: IT'S NEVER TOO SOON TO CALL and pretty much next to PASS WITH CARE.
People are ... passing. Dying. Robin dies of cancer in "The Juniper Tree." She is mourned by the narrator (who is dating the man Robin used to date, there not being many available men in their community, making recycling -- and daily drinking -- necessary).
Other mourning drinking women who join the narrator are Isabel, who is "not wearing her prosthetic arm" anymore, and Pat, disabled by a massive stroke. This story taps the universal regret about inattention to the ill and dying -- haven't we all found excuses not to face the horrible fact of mortality?
"The Juniper Tree," like several other stories in "Bark," moves to a dream/dreamlike ending, eschewing the real world as incapable of resolving the conflicts besetting the characters, who are mostly crippled by will-lessness.
In "Paper Losses," a wife full of rage tamped down with forbearance is surprised to learn the reason her husband is hardly home -- and when he is, he's down in the basement sending up toxic fumes by making model rockets. The reason: another woman. Kit's resistance to reality takes her on a final Caribbean vacation with her soon-to-be ex and their children.
In "Foes," a writer, hangs on to his wife for dear life as he makes enemies (beaucoup faux pas, he tells her) at a fancy dinner, unable to stay away from forbidden subjects: politics, terrorism.
The characters of "Bark" are Americans with the news banging in their ears. Their references are to Ollie North, Barack Obama, Abu Ghraib, Pentagon bombings. In "Wings" two songwriters without talent have so little to live on they must become grifters. Dench, the man, more or less pimps out KC (emotionally, not physically) to an old man living next door. What can she get? How can she come back with something for him? In an extended relationship with the old man and the death knocking at his door, KC comes to know Dench for who he is.
There is hopeless almost-love to be contemplated and lost in "Subject to Search" and "Thank You for Having Me." In these stories middle-age female protagonists sum up the woes of this collection -- men out of reach, monstrous children who terrorize their parents, a restless ironic mind that keeps trying to make connections. And jokes. Even when the jokes, like the men, are taking a powder.
Kathleen George is the author of the recent novel "A Measure of Blood" and the forthcoming novel "The Johnstown Girls." She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.