Since the publication of her first collection of short stories nearly 40 years ago, Lorrie Moore has earned praise from critics and adoration from readers for her hilarious and frequently poignant fiction. In a distinctive style that delights in poetic language and frequent wordplay, and with a voice that manages to be both detached and sympathetic, Moore’s stories depict America’s bourgeois bohemians as they navigate romances and marriages, deal with illness and death, and struggle with loss and grief. Through it all, her work has been grounded in the realist tradition of most contemporary literary fiction.
But toward the end of her 2009 novel The Gate at the Stairs, an odd thing happens at a funeral: The narrator climbs into the casket and snuggles next to her deceased loved one, noticing the smell of "field fertilizer used by the agribiz farms." It was the strangest moment I could recall in Moore’s fiction—and a hint of things to come in her latest novel.
In I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, characters don’t have to climb into caskets because the dead themselves rise. It’s easily Moore’s strangest, most surreal novel, but it’s also characteristically funny and a deeply affecting account of losing loved ones.
The novel has two distinct storylines. In the central plot, set in the fall of 2016, Finn, a high school history teacher, has traveled from Ohio to New York City to comfort his brother Max, who’s dying in a hospice ward. They reminisce, talk about conspiracy theories (Finn’s a fan), and watch the World Series (poor Max roots for the Indians). But Finn’s visit is cut short when he receives a text insisting that he must return to Ohio—his ex-girlfriend, Lily, has committed suicide. As it turns out, the rumors of death’s permanence have been greatly exaggerated: Lily—her name an apt evocation of funerary flora—greets Finn in the graveyard. They hop in his car and head south, an undead update of a more famous Finn’s adventures, not to mention of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (both of which Moore mentions directly along the way).
During a conversation about the radio—dead people like to talk about the radio during road trips, too—Lily asks questions the reader may also be wondering:
"Is this a zombie movie?"
"Is it a rom-com?"
It’s a hybrid—a zom-rom-com. Lily describes herself as "a casserole of rot" and Finn wants seconds.
Interspersed throughout the story is the novel’s secondary storyline: a series of journal entries, presented as letters, from a postbellum Kentucky innkeeper named Libby to her dead sister. This storyline centers on a mysterious visitor who, Libby realizes, is a notorious man widely believed to be dead. (Not to name names, but he’s a theater buff with a leg injury who sympathizes with "seceches," or secessionists.) When this visitor forgets his manners, Libby reminds him.
The parallel narratives eventually intersect when Finn and Lily spend a night at the old inn, where he discovers Libby’s journal and absconds with it. There are more subtle echoes between the two plots, as well. The Lily/Libby rhyme invites readers to consider shared themes and concerns, as does the arrival in the 19th-century plot of a man named Phinneus Bates who, like Finn, makes a corpse a traveling companion. Moore also nudges readers to notice political similarities between the plotlines, with both taking place against the backdrop of serious political division. Most significantly, Libby’s epistolary journal is her way of coping with her sister’s death, just as Finn is grappling with his brother’s illness and Lily’s suicide.
The novel is largely about fending off grief, in part with humor. Lily was a grief therapy clown. She donned a dopey nose to cheer up sick children and was buried in her clown shoes—then again, she also tried to use the laces to kill herself. She and Finn engage in witty banter in part to avoid the serious weirdness of their situation. Jokes are their way of staving off the harsh realities of life, including illness, death, and grief. "Jokes are flotation devices on the great sea of sorrowful life," says Lily. "They are exit signs in a very dark room." When she walks out of Finn’s life for the last time, it’s an emotionally powerful moment lightened by a sight gag: She’s still wearing the floppy footwear.
Eventually, Finn cannot rely on humor as a defense mechanism. In its final pages, the novel leaves the world of the living dead and gives us glimpses into Finn’s lonely and grief-stricken new world. At his computer, "continually he had to verify online that he was not a robot." Not a robot, sure—but what kind of life is he living?
There are moments in the novel that give the reader opportunities to interpret the zombified Lily as a projection of Finn’s fevered mind. He is driving around the country with a box of kitty litter in his car—perhaps that makes him hallucinate? Are anachronistic phrases like "stranger-splain" and "sweet Jesus take the reins" in Libby’s journal just Moore’s puckish humor, or do they suggest that the journal is the figment of Finn’s imagination? One reviewer even suggested that Finn dies midway through the book. But too many details and plot elements cut against these interpretations.
Still, this uncertainty about the main character’s experiences is one of the book’s surprising similarities to another recent work by a modern American great, Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (2022). The writers’ styles could not be more different. Yet both works depict the central character’s grief over the suicide of a mentally ill loved one; both feature taboo sexual attraction; both often feel like paranoid fantasies, dabbling in the worlds of conspiracy theories and unresolved mysteries. And both include loose ends that raise questions about what exactly happened—but McCarthy’s work is frustratingly obscure, while Moore’s is thought-provokingly ambiguous.
Many years ago, I took creative writing classes with Moore. My classmates and I, Moore admirers all, wrote stories that were obviously inspired by our teacher’s work. But one semester, she assigned a short story for discussion that was far different from anything we had written or read so far, and very unlike anything Moore herself had published. She made her point clear when she told us (according to the notes I took that day), "I want you to read this and go home and feel that you can write anything."
That is the spirit of I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, a moving and darkly funny work that’s unmistakably Moore’s even as it is far more surreal and unsettling than anything she’s written before.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home: A Novel
by Lorrie Moore
Knopf, 208 pp., $27
Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.