Lorrie Moore’s fiction has always defied easy categorization, but it’s consistently smart, witty and thought-provoking. Her fourth novel—and her first in 14 years—touches all those bases. I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home is an unusual but surprisingly affecting story about life and death and the liminal space that separates them.
Moore’s protagonist, Finn, is a young high school teacher who teaches what he calls “Alt-Consensus History,” an attempt to “reclaim the term conspiracy theory” on subjects such as whether the first moon landing ever happened. He’s been placed on a paid leave for either his curricular choices or rebuffing the advances of the headmaster’s wife. His older brother, Max, is dying in a Bronx hospice, and they pass the time by watching the 2016 World Series, which ended with the Chicago Cubs winning their first title in more than a century. As the teams compete in game after game, in what feels like a potentially infinite duration, Finn feels as if his brother is “rooting for both teams to go on forever so he wouldn’t die.”
Amid his deepening sadness over his brother’s imminent passing, Finn receives an urgent call to return home to deal with a crisis involving his “mad and maddening” ex-girlfriend Lily. She’s a bright but unstable woman who provides “laugh therapy” as a clown to brighten the lives of her clients, mostly children. Finn seems as reluctant to abandon his attachment to her as he is to bid farewell to his brother.
At the heart of the novel is Finn and Lily’s road trip through an autumnal American heartland, one of the stranger journeys in recent fiction. As they drive along roads that feel like “an unfurling ribbon without a gift,” they dissect the reasons for their relationship’s demise and spar—sometimes seriously, other times with the dry, often black humor that’s a characteristic of Moore’s writing—over subjects such as the inscription on Finn’s headstone. (He wants one that includes his phone number and the words “ATTENTION: UNDERLYING CONDITIONS.”) “Jokes are flotation devices on the great sea of sorrowful life,” Lily observes. “They are the exit signs in a very dark room.”
Interspersed with the account of their travels are letters from a woman named Elizabeth, who runs a boardinghouse in the years immediately following the Civil War, to her sister. While their relationship to Finn and Lily’s story isn’t immediately apparent, Moore deftly ties them together before the end.
Moore’s ambitions in this brief novel are modest, even as the subjects she tackles are among the most profound facing human beings. If there’s a book that earns the description tragicomic, it’s certainly this one.