July 28: “Foes” by Lorrie Moore

What’s up, Story366? I’m writing you with an adversarial mindset tonight. I’m watching the Cubs-Sox game as I type this, the Cubs up 2-1 (update: they went on to win 3-1), and am also monitoring the Democratic National Convention (update: I just saw Hillary kill it with her closing speech). I’m a homer, through and through, and two of my favorite things to root for—the Cubs and lefties—are making a good show of it tonight. It’s a long road for both, but hopefully, in early November, both will turn my way. For now, it’s time to fight the good fight.

“Foes” by Lorrie Moore, from her collection Bark (Knopf), is the perfect story to write on tonight. As the title suggests, the story is about opposing forces, these forces very similar to the ones squaring off in this year’s election. “Foes” was published in The Guardian in 2008, though, so the the battle at hand is the Obama vs. McCain election, an event that Moore tackles uniquely and adeptly.

I should pause to let you know that I’m a pretty huge Lorrie Moore fan, as I’ve pretty much everything she’s written, the story collections a couple of times over, and list some of those stories as some of the best ever written. She’s one of those living writers that has a whole slew of anthologized pieces, be it the classroom staple “How to Become a Writer,” to stories like “Terrific Mother,” “You’re Ugly, Too,” and “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” I teach at least one of these stories in every class every semester, as I think Moore is one of those writers, like Carver, like Boyle, like Munro, who has to be read, no matter how many stories they write, no matter how many writers come after, no matter what class it is.

I also think that Moore would be/is the hardest writer to imitate. I just mentioned Carver, and while me or anyone else would pale in comparison to his stories—the minimal Lish edits or his later work—you could attempt one of those Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?-type pieces and people would know what you were trying to do. Moore, however, with her wit, her ear for dialogue, her quiet absurdity, story after story, would be practically impossible. Maybe you’d be funny. Maybe you’d script some good back-and-forth. And maybe you’d place a tale in a realistic, yet ironically ridiculous setting. But could you do all three, and do it as well as Moore, without straight-up stealing from her? I’d doubt you if you’re saying yes.

Back to “Foes.” “Foes” is about Bake McKurty (but not Bake McBride), a writer who has to go to a fundraising dinner—for a literary magazine!—with his wife, Suzy. Bake is a biographer, a pretty famous one, and he and Suzy need to bump elbows with rich, non-artist types, people who are used to being asked for money by people who are not used to asking for it. Suzy makes Bake go, anyway, as that’s what Suzy’s job is (at least in this story): to keep Bake on task.

The dining room at the fundraiser has big circular tables, and Bake and Suzy sit. Immediately Suzy engages a sculptor and his wife on her side, while an attractive Asian woman named Linda sits next to Bake. Bake is suddenly interested in the event—he’s always had a thing for Asian women—so for the length of the meal, he’s willing to sit next to Linda, be charmed by her, and maybe, just maybe, ask her for a donation. Or not.

The story turns, however, when Linda’s attractiveness starts to wear thin: Politically, she couldn’t be further from Bake’s comfort zone. Linda is a self-declared lobbyist for some evil cause—that’s how she introduces herself. Among other things, she’s also critical of the African American presidential candidate, Bracko (which is, oddly, how Moore “disguises” Obama), eventually stretching to straight-up, unabashed racism. Bake looks to Suzy for help, and Suzy, busy with her sculptor, ushers him back, instructs him to ask for the cash (kind of like Hillary’s mom made a bowed Hillary face that bully all those years ago). Bake heads back in, but Linda’s appeal—not to mention some of her original charms—disintegrates completely, granting Bake an epiphany.

Despite all this, the story’s not really about the fundraiser, whether or not Bake scores that donation (and really, what kind of lit mag has a deep-pockets fundraiser dinner in Washington, D.C.?). It’s about Bake and Suzy, about how they interact, this sixty-something couple thrust into this odd situation, interacting with each other, communicating with each other. It’s also bout Bake dealing with Bake, with his self interests, his self doubts, and finally, his self worth. All of it, of course, is delivered with Moore’s sense of humor, her skill, her exactness. I loved Bake and Suzy by the end of this story, wanted to sit next to them at the dinner, wanted to have drinks with them, share a cab back to Georgetown, all just to hear them talk, to hear them speak Moore’s words.

There’s few writers whose work I admire, enjoy, or respect as Lorrie Moore’s, and the stories I’ve read for today in Bark are no exception. She is, without hesitation, one of the true geniuses we have writing fiction today, or at any time. I’m honored to include her here. Wouldn’t have left her off for the world.

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