Best known for the penetrating wit and acute insight of short stories like those in her brilliant collection BIRDS OF AMERICA, it has taken Lorrie Moore 15 years to produce a successor to her last novel, WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? In A GATE AT THE STAIRS, she tracks, with compassion and humor, the emotional journey of a young woman at the dawn of the 21st century. By the time she’s through, it’s hard to think of another contemporary writer better suited to that task.
Tassie Keltjin is a bright and self-aware 20-year-old college freshman in the town of Troy (ironically nicknamed the “Athens of the Midwest”), reminiscent of Moore’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. The daughter of a Lutheran father and Jewish mother (who serves brisket and noodle kugel for Christmas dinner), she’s been raised on a small “hobby” farm where her father grows designer potatoes, but now she's ready to embrace the wider world. She shares an apartment with a roommate who uses black dental floss, plays the bass and takes a grab bag of courses like Intro to Sufism and Soundtracks to War Movies.
Three months after the events of “September” (“we did not yet call them 9/11”), Tassie fitfully seeks a babysitting job, though she admits she’s “not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother.” One can imagine her reading Moore’s hilarious short story “How to Become a Writer” (“Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you. You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths.”). Her search leads her to Sarah Brink, the owner of a trendy restaurant that serves dishes like bison carpaccio with wilted spring leaves, and her husband, Edward Thornwood, an eye cancer researcher who seems to spend more time eyeing Tassie than he does at his research. They are about to adopt a two-year-old mixed race girl, a decision that will immerse them in the racial tensions that pervade even liberal Troy.
From the time she becomes Mary-Emma’s caretaker, Tassie slowly is drawn into her employers’ lives, ones that seem more opaque and even sinister the longer she’s with them. “The people in this house, I felt, and I included myself,” she observes, “were like characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale.” She falls in love with a Brazilian fellow student named Reynaldo, whose command of Portuguese is perplexingly shaky. Throughout, an atmosphere of impending catastrophe, as in Moore’s classic story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” looms over these characters and materializes startlingly in the novel’s second half. Tassie learns tragic truths about Sarah and Edward (and an only slightly less disturbing one about Reynaldo) while discovering, in the end, “People were not what they seemed and certainly not what they said. Madness was contagious.”
Moore is a high wire prose artist unafraid to dazzle with feats of verbal dexterity. Possessed of both a relentlessly observant eye and the ability to fling lightning bolts of humor, she combines them in biting metaphors: “But family life sometimes had a vortex, like weather. It could be like a tornado in a quiet zigzag: get close enough and you might see within it a spinning eighteen-wheeler and a woman.” The novel is laced with comic riffs displayed in this description of Tassie's hometown (once proudly self-identified as the “Extraterrestrial Capital of the World”), a place she dismisses as one of “a thousand forgotten poppy seeds scattered across the state map. Scorched grains of cornmeal on the bottom of a pizza. A thousand black holes. Pinpricks with little names.”
Most of the novels that have played out against the backdrop of 9/11 --- Don DeLillo’s FALLING MAN and Jonathan Safran Foer’s EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE to cite but two examples of the growing body of literature --- have been centered in and around New York City. Moore’s invocation of those events is allusive, as if in recognition of the distance separating her characters from Ground Zero. But there’s a sense of indefinable menace, the feeling that life is fragile, tenuous, that insinuates its way through these pages. When Tassie's younger brother enlists in the Army after graduating from high school and is sent to Afghanistan, that specter becomes real.
Pulsing with intelligence and lacerating humor, and showcasing Lorrie Moore’s uncanny ability to capture the free-floating anxiety that undoubtedly qualifies as the psychic disorder of our age, A GATE AT THE STAIRS is a tightly focused snapshot of our unsettled world.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 24, 2011
A Gate at the Stairs