By Lorrie Moore.
Knopf. 291 pp. $23.

Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America is a collection of stories about devastation and brokenness, pathos and parlor games. Moore, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Self-Help: Stories, likes her characters–or at least empathizes with them, or would enjoy overhearing their conversations in an elevator (or, in this book, more likely a bar, truckstop or poorly funded historical landmark). Her stories are funny. Very funny. And mean–but in a good way. Tempering desolation with blistering dialogue, she made me laugh at a woman with cancer and a philandering husband. She had me snickering wantonly at the misfortune of the lonely and loveless former B-movie starlet who dates an auto mechanic in a bad poncho (“though,” as her friend Charlotte aptly points out, “was there such a thing as a good poncho?”).

Moore’s creations are uncomfortable and acutely ridiculous. “What You Want to do Fine” is a story of unlikely lovers traveling along the Mississippi River: the blind, gay, recovering alcoholic lawyer and the new man in town, who sees his past in every phone number and himself in every missing-child poster. On a trip through historic Vicksburg, the blind lawyer comments, “I like a place with a strong sense of grudge–which they, of course, call ‘a keen acquaintance with history.’ He clears his throat. ‘But let’s get on to New Orleans. I also like a place that doesn’t give a shit.'”

Yet, in the end, it’s Moore’s generosity toward her characters that is most striking. For every ungracious child, there’s a clean, wicked wit; for every infirmity, a biting tongue. Her characters are all banter and snark, negativity and truth. They are enviously sharp-eyed and shrewd, if passive, broken and dumpy. In “Willing,” when the aforementioned starlet learns she’s been cheated on by a man she doesn’t even respect, “she felt shorter and squatter and badly coifed…. She felt like a cross between Anna Karenina and Amy Liverhaus, who used to shout from the fourth-grade cloakroom, ‘I just don’t feel appreciated.'”

Then there are the birds of the title, which in this book fare no better than the people (starting with the bird on the book’s cover, a splendid bird sticker whose head I ripped off when removing the price tag–a portent of what was to come…). In “Real Estate,” birds are an infestation. In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” they reclaim the backyard and “darken the trees” when the cat dies. In “Which Is More than I Can Say About Some People,” birds fly through the night only to meet their end in a “muffled thud…against the window.”

The people–and the birds–that populate Birds of America are fiercely their own entities, intricate and irreducible. As one of her characters observes, “A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.” Moore’s writing is similarly symbiotic, a beautiful balance of turbulence and relief, hopelessness and grandeur.