Lorrie Moore's Bark Lacks Bite

Bark: Stories (2014)
By Lorrie Moore
Knopf, 9780307594136, 208 pp.
* *

I got bamboozled by the Hype Machine, the one that praised Lorrie Moore's past work and assured me I'd be dazzled by her new stories and her stylish prose. I'm not a fan of short stories in general; my preferences gravitate toward complex characters, plots, and story development that need space to unfold. Courtesy of the hype, though, I put aside my short story skepticism to give Moore's first new collection in 16 years a try. I ripped through this thin volume very quickly, but not in a good way. Overall, Bark lacks bite.

Moore's new work consists of eight stories, each of which muses upon or mentions some meaning of the word bark. Clever or a contrivance? More the latter I fear. The most affecting story is the first, "Debarking," in which Ira comes to shed the wounds of a recent divorce. His interlude of self-flagellation preceding revelation includes a completely incompatible relationship with Zora, a pediatrician creepily over devoted to her sullen (spoiled? psycho? garden variety jerk?) son. In this sense, bark is an unpeeling of outer layers–much as a cork tree's exterior must be cut away to get at its inner cork/core. It's one of the longer pieces in the book, which may be why it works–we dwell long enough in the psyches of its characters to understand what makes them tick and what makes them unwind.

It's downhill from there. "Juniper Tree" is a diverting ghost story, but nothing special; "Foes" a rather obvious cautionary tale against snap judgments with a 9/11 twist that's more hammered in through the cracks than woven into the story's fabric. "Wings" could have/should have been a contender. It has an intriguing set up in which KC, a self-absorbed hipster/singer, and Dench, her boyfriend/artist, find themselves exiled in suburbia. KC encounters an elderly widower who shows her what she already knows: that Dench is a mooch and a genius only in his own mind. Then the story takes a weird turn, elides time, and ends on an improbable note. Oh yeah, KC meets the old man when she walks the dog. If that sounds a bit forced, it is. Bark! Bark! Woof!

The less said about the final three stories, the better. I have no idea who Moore's intended audience was in these, but she wasn't barking up my tree. There was quite a lot of unconvincing dialogue and breaking of sequential narrative in service of very little. As for Moore's prose style, the last few stories in particular seem destined to impress other writers more than general readers. In total, the book's central hook put me in mind of an old power game journalists play in which they slip the phrase "it was as if an occult hand had reached down" into a story and try to get it past their editors. Bark made me yearn for a big, thick, juicy novel–something to sink my teeth into, as it were.  Rob Weir


Insane City is Too Much Dave Barry

INSANE CITY   (2013)
By Dave Barry
Berkley Trade, 400 pp. #9782425264720
* *

I used to read Dave Barry's columns religiously until he gave up the weekly grind back in 2005. I usually guffawed like a fool, even though I knew that a lot of Barry's humor was shtick and quite a bit more was sophomoric. In short, I was a fan. Alas, what one can get away with in 900 words wears really thin when stretched to 400 pages.

Insane City is a tale of a wedding gone wrong, but its real protagonist is Miami, the namesake metropolitan loony bin and one of Barry's frequent foils. Seth Weinstein has hit the romantic jackpot, or so he thinks. Seth is little more than a hunky slacker who does social media for a douche spray. To date, his greatest life  success was graduating with what may be the tallest empty pizza box collection in collegiate history. But his intended is the gorgeous Tina Clark, a high-powered (and high maintenance) attorney and the daughter of one of the richest men on the planet. All Seth has to do is get to the altar without screwing up. And, of course, that won't happen. Seth is capable of plenty of mayhem on his own, but the poor sap has no chance when his college buddies–aka/ the Groom Posse–decide to arrange a boys' night bachelor blowout.

There are plenty of laughs in a novel whose cast includes the following: an overweight stripper named LaDawne; her pimp boyfriend Wesley; the bride's stoner sister Meghan; an anal wedding planner who had her name legally changed to Blaze Gear; a grab-ass guru who goes by Banza Dazu; a tattooed (semi) tough guy, Duane; Cyndi, a well-endowed but slightly cheap Cuban woman; two muscled ex-cop (for a reason) bodyguards; a nine-foot albino python named Blossom; a Haitian woman, Laurette, who washes ashore with her two children; and a lovesick orangutan called Trevor. There's even a scene­–and I kid you not–that involves a pirate ship firing frozen chicken wings at a speeding tour boat trying to board it. Barry presents Miami as a repository for every kind of human being and animal except those one might dub 'normal.'

Does this sound funny? At times it's laugh out loud hilarious. It's just as often inane and dumb. Barry has never shied away from lowest common denominator humor, though sometimes we wish he would. We'd also like him to avoid strolling down Biggest Cliché Imaginable Boulevard. Tina, as you no doubt surmised, isn't the perfect catch. She's smart and has a body that turns heads, but she's also controlling, egoistic, spoiled, self-deceived, and in possession of every quality necessary for a Bridezilla. I'm a supporter of recycling, but I had my fill of Bridezilla books, TV shows, and movies decades ago. Insane City reads more like an ongoing Saturday Night Live sketch than a novel. To imagine the book's tone, think Carl Hiaasen crossed with The Three Stooges, and a little bit of Cheech and Chong. I'd call this a classic airplane book–the sort you  leave it in the seat pocket, and never give it another thought, even if you don't finish it. My emerging impression is that maybe Dave Barry is like the big gooey desserts on the Applebee's menu–a small taste is all you need. A second bite is too much.  Rob Weir    


2014 Films that Gobbled

There are so many mediocre movies these days that it's a distinction to be worthy of being singled out as a turkey. For me, the gobblers fall into two categories: those rated I for Incompetence and H for hyped beyond any virtue they might have had. Here's a digest of films I saw in 2014 that should be stricken from your Netflix cue.

August Osage County  (Rated H)

Okay, so it is possible for Meryl Streep to give a bad performance! She plays Mama Violet to a trio of screech daughters, but ain't nobody gonna out-yell Streep in this histrionic Oklahoma buffalo turd masquerading as a drama. I wished she had been a shrinking Violet.

Dallas Buyers Club (Rated H)

I'm willing to cut a deal. I'll admit that Matthew McConaughey has made himself into a decent actor if you promise not to tell me that this trite film is serious commentary on the 1980s, the AIDS crisis, sexual identity, or an awakening social consciousness. It's really like an episode of the TV series Dallas with too many swears and "adult themes" to have been green lighted. I will allow you to tell me that it is commentary on Texas.
Exscape from Tomorow

Escape from Tomorrow (Rated I)

Oh my goodness what a good director could have done with this material! Alas, the only thing interesting about Randy Moore's film is that he had to fend off potential lawsuits from Disney and Siemens to get it released. Dad Jim (Roy Abramsohn) comes unglued at Disney World when he finds out he's lost his job. Filmed in black and white, we see how Disney World is the vehicle for a descent into madness–its robots, faux dreamscape, and hyper-capitalism a gateway to debauchery, creepy stalking, and perhaps something even more sinister. It's hard to know if Moore was making social commentary or the worst sci-fi film since Plan 9 from Outer Space. Moore's film reminds me of ones we used to view and reject for a local film fest after commenting, "He might become a decent filmmaker if he ever grows up." Special actor horns to Abramsohn, who seems to be auditioning for a Chevy Chase bio-pic.

Force Majeure  (Rated H/I)

Other than offering a peek at the peaks of the French Alps, I can't think of a single reason why this Swedish snoozer should have been made. Nuclear family goes on ski holiday, where the raveling seams of a bad Yuppie marriage come apart when dad gets scared. That's about it. Oh, I forgot, there's also a very annoying soundtrack. This one pretends to be subtle, but that's because its director has no idea how to create believable tension.

Labor Day (Rated I)

Can Kate Winslet find love in a pie? Especially one baked by the convicted murderer and prison escapee that's holding her and her son hostage? Well… he is mighty handy as a carpenter as well, so sure, that could happen. This risible Jason Reitman film is an insult to the intelligence of a concrete block.

The Lego Movie (Rated H)

I'm officially baffled. Lots of people had this on their best-of lists. I've heard it called clever, subversive, and visually stunning. The film I couldn't watch any more after a half hour was obvious, saccharine, blocky, and dull. Check out the similarly named Logorama if you want to see subversive and clever; that 2009 short says more in 16 minutes than Lego manages in 100. All The Lego Movie really manages to do is confirm my thesis that movies are in serious trouble. It also made me wonder what happened to the CGI evolution. The herky-jerky movements and garishness of Lego make the old Rocky and Bullwinkle 'toons look prescient.

Wolf of Wall Street (Rated H)

Okay, I'll make another offer. If you will agree with me that Leo DiCaprio will never make us see anything other than his smug supercilious self on the screen, I'll agree to give Marty Scorsese one more chance before I declare him yesterday's bagel and toss him to the birds. Leo plays a sleaze ball. What? You expected Mary Poppins? Watching three hours of Leo behaving badly is like being stuck in a waiting room with nothing but People Magazine to read. 

A final note: I didn't hate Boyhood, which was okay. It was, however, way over-hyped. I found its central hook of filming real people over a long period puzzling within a fictional narrative. Recent viewings of Michael Apted's magisterial 7 Up series drive home the differences.