LIKE LIFE

Stories

By Lorrie Moore

Knopf. 178 pp. $18.95

Like both of her previous books ("Self-Help" and "Anagrams"), Lorrie Moore's latest story collection, "Like Life," displays an impressive range of voice and tone and a punning, exuberant humor. While the values here are starker -- one character actually bathes in Lysol -- Moore's persistent obsession remains all the ways in which the "love life" of women can fade, come apart or explode. The title does work, then, as inverted euphemism, simile and uncertain admonition.

In "Two Boys" the fact that Mary has two lovers draws various postal responses from her friends. "Mary, what are you doing!? Or else they said, Sounds great to me. One of them said, You hog, and then there were a lot of exclamation points." It isn't that simple, of course. Boy Number One is a wealthy, cocksure politician for whose congressional campaign Mary puts up posters on kiosks. "The posters consisted of a huge, handsome photograph with the words Number One underneath. She usually tried to staple him through the tie, so that it looked like a clip, but when ... he talked too much about his wife, she stapled him right in the eyes."

Number Two is shy and considerate, unemployed and unmarried, committed to Mary but much less exciting to her. "He gave her long back rubs, then collapsed on top of her in a moan... . Words came few and slow. They were never what he meant, he said. He had a hard time explaining." "I know," Mary tells him.

Her own nervous collapse, however, has less to do with the amorous dilemma implied by the title than with her amorphous sense of desire. Though she tells each man that she loves him, she in fact prefers Number Three, an unlikely amalgam of both. "She always wanted the thing not proposed."

The thing not proposed is what Zoe Hendricks wants in "You're Ugly, Too." What she has is an assistant professorship of history at a rural Illinois college, plus a sneaking suspicion that life is elsewhere. Her students are "good Midwesterners, spacey with estrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese... . Everyone was so blond there that brunettes were often presumed to be from foreign countries." The lunky, inarticulate men Zoe meets survey their own pectorals -- "first the left, then the right" -- beneath their tight shirts, never quite "get" books or paintings, and prefer to double-date with men whose wives they are attracted to. A brunette with a conspicuously unflashy wardrobe, Zoe comes to infer "that all men, deep down, wanted Heidi. Heidi cleavage. Heidi with outfits."

She flees for a weekend to her sister's Halloween party in Manhattan, more specifically to be fixed up with Earl, a divorced photographer, who arrives dressed as a naked woman. Zoe is wearing a bone through her head. They discover they can actually talk. In spite of this promising start, their tentative mating dance on a 20th-story balcony ends in grotesque, almost fatal hostility, leaving us to wonder, with Zoe, whether women and men are not in fact "completely different species."

The least convincing stories here are "Joy" and "Starving Again." "Vissi d'Arte," likewise, is a forced, antic piece in which a failed playwright is left by his doctor girlfriend and forced to consider "selling his children" by writing for television. The more powerful stories include "The Jewish Hunter" and "Places to Look for Your Mind." The latter involves a son's unexplained disappearance and his parents' desperate sadness 10 years later, when a boy their son's age visits their home. "It was terrible to lose a boy," thinks the mother. "Girls could make their way all right, but boys went out into the world, limping with notions, and they never came back."

The title -- and final -- story is set in a near-future Brooklyn whose apocalyptic menace contrasts significantly with the safer, or at least much more neutral, territory Moore's women tend to inhabit. Mamie, an author and illustrator of children's books, lives with Rudy, the husband of 14 years she is trying to leave, in a converted beauty parlor. Outside, homeless people and street kids roam the sidewalk, and tabloids are "full of news of the war in India and, locally, of the women's bodies dredged up weekly from the Gowanus Canal. Disappeared women, with contusions. Beaten and drowned." The city is losing its mind, and Mamie has to wonder whether she might be too. "At times her marriage seemed like a saint, guillotined and still walking for miles through the city, carrying its head." Yet when Rudy insists they still love one another, she is hard pressed to deny it, and her sense of their fragile mortality never stops throbbing inside her. "In the last five years," after all, "almost all of their friends had died."

Moore's strongest work has always been terribly funny. Here, at the end of her third and best book, as life closes in and Mamie's imagination continues to seethe, the terror the narrative generates is sheerer by an order of magnitude, unmitigated by puns or bad jokes or by Moore's cracking wise. What humor remains is less makeshift, more lifelike, integrated thoroughly into the heart of a fierce, telling story.

The reviewer's most recent novel is "Ghost Waves."