Life is a cornfield,” American author Lorrie Moore once remarked, “but literature is that shot of whiskey that’s been distilled down.” Moore herself, to continue the metaphor, is a small-batch distillery. She specialises in short stories and is anything but prolific, but what she does produce is always special and first-rate.
A good example of such is What You Want to Do Fine from Moore’s 1998 bestselling collection Birds of America. It’s the story of a couple, one of whom is blind and gay, while the other is sighted and unsure about his sexuality.
Mack has moved so much in his life that every phone number he comes across seems to him to be one he’s had before. “I swear this used to be my number,” he says, putting the car into park and pointing at the guidebook: 923-7368. The built-in cadence of a phone number always hits him the same personal way: like something familiar but lost, something momentous yet insignificant — like an act of love with a girl he used to date.
That’s a life story expertly concentrated down to a single moment. Mack (the unsure one) and his lover Quilty are journeying through the midwestern and southern United States on an extended “sight-seeing” holiday, ostensibly from their daily routine but actually, readers begin to suspect, from themselves. Along the way – for instance, while atop the St. Louis Arch – they engage in the sort of quirky, faintly morbid banter which is Moore’s trademark.
“Describe the view to me,” says Quilty when they get out at the top.
Mack looks out through the windows.
“Adequate,” he says.
“I said describe, not rate.”
“Midwestern. Aerial. Green and brown.”
Quilty sighs. “I don’t think blind men should date deaf-mutes until the how-to book has been written.”
As is typical for Moore, the dramatic tension in this story issues from the gradual revelation of how much resentment is concealed within the seemingly light-hearted, ironic back-and-forth of long-term couples.
Mack and Quilty met at a gathering for recovering alcoholics. But by the time they reach New Orleans and run out of places further south to visit, open hostility emerges between them, and Mack jumps off the wagon.
The moment comes – what a wonderfully absurd detail! – at a duck show.
Downstairs, the clock says quarter to five, and a crowd is gathering to watch the ducks. A red carpet has already been rolled out from the elevator to the fountain, and this makes the ducks excited, anxious for the evening ritual, their clipped wings fluttering. Mack takes a table in the back and orders a double whiskey with ice. He drinks it fast – it freezes and burns in that great old way: it has been too long.
As Moore might have written, something’s fowl in the state of Louisiana.
Actually, Moore probably would never write something that obvious, except as a set-up line.
Everyone should definitely check out Moore, who’s been called both the finest living American short-story writer.
She’s a rara avis indeed – an author whose flippancy is a vehicle not just for cleverness, but wisdom about the difficulty of maintaining human relationships in an often absurd, morally indifferent world.