Story last updated at 9/9/2009 - 11:37 am
"A Gate at the Stairs" (Knopf, 336 pages, $25), by Lorrie Moore
The author of acclaimed short-story collections "Birds of America" and "Like Life," Lorrie Moore has a well-deserved reputation as a master of that form, with powers of observation and a sense of whimsy that lend themselves to observing life in miniature.
But Moore also writes novels, and with "A Gate at the Stairs" - her first in 15 years - she may have penned her masterpiece. A sharp, sad year-in-the-life saga of a Midwestern college student, this is the kind of book that sneaks up on you: Moore charms with her humor and knack for the small but telling detail, slowly builds a sense of investment in her frustratingly passive protagonist, then unleashes an unexpected emotional wallop at the end.
Moore isn't the kind of author you read to be put through the paces of an exciting plot. Some readers might grow weary, for instance, at Moore's numerous, lengthy tangents into exhaustive description of Midwestern plant life. Her staging of major developments can seem a bit clumsy, and a few pop-culture references feel off.
But if anything, this digressive, sometimes fractured approach lends even more authenticity to the world view of Moore's protagonist, Tassie Keltjin. A 20-year-old student at a thinly veiled version of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where Moore has taught for 25 years), Tassie often seems only loosely in touch with the world around her, simultaneously self-obsessed and detached from her real self in a way that will seem familiar to anyone who knows college students.
The novel follows Tassie for a year starting shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A smart but naive farm girl from a tiny Midwestern town, Tassie is just starting to get glimpses of a life beyond her provincial background, a world of "Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir." She acknowledges that she'd never eaten Chinese food before college and to never having seen a man dressed in a tie and blue jeans until the day a professor showed up for class in such garb.
Much of the book revolves around Tassie's new job working as a nanny for the adopted biracial daughter of a wealthy, slightly mysterious middle-aged couple. Tassie is both fascinated and a little frightened by Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood, but she quickly bonds with their child.
"A Gate at the Stairs" also follows Tassie through her first serious relationship, and on a few visits home to her odd but loving parents and aimless teenage brother. Moore maintains her light touch throughout, weaving in weighty topics like racism, 9/11 and familial and personal dysfunction without turning the book into a slog.
Indeed, more than anything, Moore is a deeply funny writer. She pokes some fun at the rural Midwest, whether it's exposing verbal tics like the distinction in meaning between "sounds good" and "good to go," or describing the menu at a supper club in Tassie's hometown:
"On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called 'Grandma Jell-O,' but 'prime rib with au jus,' a precise knowledge of French - or English or even food coloring - not being the restaurant's strong point."
That kind of satire could verge on snobbery, but Moore lampoons with equal precision the liberal pieties and prejudices of Sarah, Edward and their friends, trapped in their college-town cocoon. "I could hear Edward's voice. Proximity to science and scientists and academics had caused him to speak in a kind of mimicry of professors. He would use the phrase if you will. A lot."
But the satire, the puns and the jokes that fill the pages belie the serious and sometimes dark corners explored by Moore. We know a lot about Tassie by the end of this book, not all of it so good. What Moore crafts is so like life that to condemn Tassie for the ways in which she fails and falls short as a person would demand that we examine such behavior in ourselves. Thank goodness this book is funny, otherwise, it would be nearly unbearable.