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In Lorrie Moore’s new book, a man and his dead ex-girlfriend go on a road trip

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is weird, funny, gross, and tender.

The cover of the book “I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home” by Lorrie Moore features a human with wings floating over the ground.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, the latest novel from beloved short-story writer Lorrie Moore, resists analysis. This is a novel made out of air, unstructured, unskeletoned. There’s a central storyline, sort of, but summarizing that doesn’t quite get at what the experience of reading this weird, funny, tender, and occasionally gross book is like.

Here goes: Finn is a high school history teacher visiting his dying brother in hospice care. We can see immediately that Finn is not entirely well himself. He’s been put on leave from his job for reasons he is cagey about. He has developed the habit of seeing how the comments he leaves in the New York Times opinion section play to the commentariat, and then judging his sanity for the day by their reception. He can’t stop talking about his ex-girlfriend, Lily, who left him for another man one year before. “I feel sorry for you, man,” his dying brother tells him.

Before Finn has done much for his brother besides getting the TV in his room tuned to the World Series, he gets a text. Lily, a therapeutic clown who struggles with depression, is in trouble. (Lily “wore floppy shoes, the laces of which she had once used to strangle herself,” Moore informs us.)

At once Finn drops everything, leaves his brother’s bedside, and drives from the Bronx toward Lily in Illinois. But by the time Finn makes it to his hometown, Lily has already died by suicide. She’s buried in a green cemetery in an unmarked grave.

“I was hoping you’d get here soon,” Lily says when Finn arrives at the cemetery. She emerges shrouded and in her clown shoes, wiping dirt off her face, not “deeply dead” but “death-adjacent.” The worms have just begun to start on her.

Lily and Finn agree that they hate the green cemetery. So Finn loads Lily’s slowly decaying corpse into his car to drive her to a body farm in Tennessee, where they will donate Lily’s body to forensic science. What ensues is part Lolita, part American Gods, with a dash of Borges for good measure.

In between chapters, we read letters written by a Reconstruction-era innkeeper named Libby to her own long-dead sister. Libby has a new guest she finds suspicious, a classical actor with secessionist sympathies. In the present, Finn, who harbors a weakness for old-fashioned conspiracy theories (“ones that put groups and systems back into the situations where individuals were taking the rap”), entertains doubts about what really happened to John Wilkes Booth.

Libby’s letters are gripping — Moore can really write a 19th-century pastiche! — but don’t expect the Booth stuff to become a mystery or the key to the plot. There isn’t a plot. This is the kind of book where not all that much happens, but all of it seems to matter.

The engine of this novel comes from Lily’s rotting flesh, which provides a ticking clock of sorts: The more her body falls apart, the vaguer her presence in Finn’s life becomes. Lily’s body is also where Moore indulges in her most extravagant language, lavishing us with metaphor. Lily’s skin “resembled the gray-green yolk of an overcooked egg,” her eyes “gold as chicken fat,” lips with “the shimmer and slip of fish skin.”

Finn loves Lily’s corpse ardently. He cradles “the sweet dense rot of her” in his arms and gently washes her failing skin in rest-stop bathrooms. When they have sex in the car, he notes that “her shifting organs and her stoop would be of use in this particular situation.” To love in this novel is to love the body that will rot away and decay, the mind that may sometimes long for rot.

Moore’s short stories frequently deal with death and illness and hospitals. The stories are shaggy, like this novel, but compact; the constraints of the medium grant them shape and form, as though Moore has poured her lovely sentences like water into the vessel of the short story. In I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, she seems to have poured her sentences out onto the ground, where they spread and stretch and sink into the soil. This is a strange and beautiful book, and when you try to catch it in your hands, it dissolves.

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