First published in the January 27, 1997, issue of the New Yorker and then in the collection Birds of America (1999), Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That” is a riveting story about a baby diagnosed with kidney cancer, the paralyzing effects on his parents, and the trauma suffered by families forever altered by experiences largely unknown to the general populace. Moore and her husband and baby endured a similar crisis with cancer, but Moore’s published story is fiction, not memoir: As the author points out to the Salon interviewer Dwight Garner, “Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction” (Salon). In fact, Moore’s story exudes the qualities of a parable. Although Moore gives first names to the “people like that” and even names the medical procedures, the principal characters remain anonymous: the Mother, the Baby, the Husband, the Radiologist, the Surgeon, the Oncologist. The Mother focuses on protecting her baby and has no interest in meeting or speaking with those in similar circumstances in the Pediatric Oncology Unit—“Peed Onk”—of the Children’s Hospital. Her husband, on the other hand, seems to find comfort in comparing notes with other parents, who cope in different ways with the horror and the shock of their babies’ possible deaths. While the Husband suggests that his writer-teacher-wife take notes for the story that will later emerge, she is aghast that he can think of writing at such a time. The tale is set in the “gentle undulations of the Midwest” with its Marshall Field’s Department Store and its children’s hospital filled with little boys “from sweet-sounding places—Janesville and Appleton” that are nonetheless infected with strip malls and landfills and the “toxicity” of Senator Joe McCarthy’s grave (224).
A major theme in the story is that no one can be prepared for life-threatening illness in an infant. Moore portrays the Baby as a curly haired, adorable child just learning to speak: His mouth is “round and open like the sweetest of poppies” (219); he has fun in the hospital (“People to see! Rooms to wander into! There is Intensive Care. There is the Trauma Unit. The Baby smiles and waves” ). Ironically, of the handful of words he has recently learned, the Baby’s phrase of the moment is Bye-bye.
The Mother moves through several stages as she tries to fathom the enormity of her baby’s disease. When the cancer is first discovered, she naturally denies it and even tries to absorb the tumor herself: “It must have been her kidney. A fifties kidney. A DDT kidney,” she thinks. “She would make the blood hers, the tumor hers; it would all be some treacherous, farcical mistake” (215). Or perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished for not caring for her baby well enough. And finally, she moves into acceptance, “maternal melancholy,” and “the songs of hard hard grief” (219).
The Husband shows his grief and frustration by calculating the enormous costs of the Baby’s hospitalization and by irrationally hurling from the night table the useless baby books—“the Leach, the Spock, the What to Expect” (223). At one point he looks at the Mother with “a mix of disorientation and divorce” (239). Neither he nor his wife is conventionally religious, the Husband having gleaned all his knowledge of the New Testament “from the sound track of Godspell” (227). The Mother imagines bargaining with a “Higher Morality” who looks “like the Manager at Marshall Field’s sucking a Frango mint” (220); she will pay anything, defer her baby’s death: “Let’s Make a Deal!” (221). It’s Christmastime, and when the Baby returns from surgery, he is “lying in his crib in his room, tubed up, splayed like a body on a dross, his arms stiffened into cardboard ‘no-no’s so that he cannot yank out the tubes” (237).
They learn from the other parents that “pulling through” and “a kind of bravery” are the orders of the day (230): “Jobs have been quit, marriages hacked up, bank accounts ravaged; the parents have seemingly endured the unendurable” (230). The mother of one little cancer patient, Joey, left her husband, remarried, and gave birth to a girl named Brittany. That Joey is still alive five years later is credited to his father, Frank, who quit his job as a consulting firm vice president in order to devote his life to his little boy. Some parents have more children, others become alcoholics, while still others carefully plan their suicides.
Moore’s language is original. On first hearing the news, “the Mother knows her own face is a big white dumpling of worry” (214). Before the Baby’s surgery, the oncologist, anesthesiologist, nurses, and social worker stand: “In their blue caps and scrubs, they look like a clutch of forget-me-nots, and forget them, who could?” (233). In a bizarre moment, the Surgeon asks the Mother to step out into the hall because he wishes to speak privately; with tightened throat she prepares for the worst, only to learn that he would like her to sign his copy of her latest novel (141). In the words of the critic Robin Werner, Moore’s characteristic “dark humor, and the pain it masks, are part of her intense contemplation of contemporary existence” (“Lorrie Moore” 276).
Another theme is the self-reflexive process of writing. During the surgery, the narrator speaks of the difficulty of description: “The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler’s mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say” (237).
In the end, the surgery is successful. Theirs is the fortunate family who can leave behind those “people” who must remain mired in Peed Onk and the many terminal cases of child cancer. Unlike “people like that,” the Mother can hear the Baby’s heart pulsing with life.
Moore, Lorrie. “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” In Birds of America. New York: Picador, 1999.
Werner, Robin. “Lorrie Moore.” In A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon, R. C. Federse, et al., 275–278. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.