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Lives on a Short-Story Roller Coaster

LIKE LIFE, By Lorrie Moore, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 178 pp., $18.95 LORRIE MOORE'S taut, subversive tales should have come with a warning label: These stories may cause permanent February in the soul. Instead, her latest collection is jacketed in a teasingly romantic photograph by the gently wise Andr'e Kert'esz. No Great White Shark off the coast of Martha's Vineyard ever had a better cover.

In her previous work, Moore treated readers to wry observations of the way we live now. There are still some laugh-out-loud moments in this anthology. Thankfully, her eye for faddishness has not dimmed. Coming upon a beauty salon called Dorian Gray's, for example, a character remarks that beauty salons these days bear names ``hostile with wit, cutesy with warning.''

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However entertaining they may be, one-liners are distracting. Sensing this, perhaps, Moore has included fewer droll moments here than in her previous novel and stories, giving full throttle to the formidable engine of her plot skills. Most short stories move with the languor of pond grass. Moore's tales, fueled by a sensibility as dark as Margaret Atwood's but without the pensive dawdling, race through events like the summer's hottest roller coaster. It will take you longer to tell your friends what happens in a Moore short story than it will take to read one.

For reasons that are never very clear, Moore's characters are poised to pitch through the thin veneer of self-control into chilly psychic spaces. Their becoming fragile is never part of the plot. They are fragile when we meet them.

Nerves are frayed, not so much as a result of what has happened, as from what is not likely to happen. Moore's people are persistently lightheaded with disappointment - the kind that follows on the realization that the only people they can get to love them are as dull as they are doggedly devoted.

As if to compensate, these characters develop an intense inner monologue. They don't have real lives, they have ``like lives,'' and they don't really like life anymore, either.

Odette, a peripatetic poet, finds love and discontent with a Jewish farm lawyer who considers most verse ``a little too literaturey.'' When his no-nonsense doctor-lover, Brecky, moves uptown, things get shaky for Harry, a playwright so shy he flushes with sweat at the thought of someone reading his masterwork. Millie, a middle-aged mom from New Jersey, shatters when her punkish English house guest leaves unexpectedly.

And so it goes. ``Emergency. Love. Emergency,'' as one character comments. Most often Moore's people-characters spin in a stable disequilibrium. But when ``Love'' is eventually left out of life's sandwich, it's all ``Emergency. Emergency. Emergency.''

In ``You're Ugly, Too,'' Zo"e Hendricks, professor of history at a small Midwestern college, tries to escape her poor teaching evaluations at a high-rise Halloween party in New York City. Donning a bonehead costume - that's right, a bone through the head like a cartoon Cro-Magnon - she attempts a flirtation with a man dressed like a woman. He seldom lets her finish her sentences. As the mutual distrust and frustration rise, he pronounces that he does ``better with women who have part-time jobs.'' Coming up behind him, Zo"e makes an attempt to toss him over the balcony on to Lexington Avenue. ``Just kidding,'' she stammers. I'll bet.

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Like most of Moore's characters, Zo"e teeters on the edge of rationality. But in ``Like Life,'' set in the near future, when it is illegal not to own a television, Mamie belly-flops into insanity. Her world is as deranged as she is rapidly becoming. With Rudy, her artist-husband of 14 years, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a former beauty salon. Rudy has begun to paint pictures of snarling dogs, and Mamie is beginning to suspect that she is little more than a tourist in her own despair. The plot boils into a surreal surprise ending. Suffice it to say that these two have watched too many reruns of ``Lust for Life'' and ``Murders in the Rue Morgue.''

Reviewing Lorrie Moore's short stories is like retelling a roller coaster ride. Some things you just have to experience. Sure, an encounter with Moore's original gifts at this juncture in her career may leave you a little woozy. But when's the last time a writer was able to do that?

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