By Lorrie Moore
Random House/Alfred A. Knopf, $25.00, 322 pages
A coming-of-age story set right after the events of 9/11, A Gate at the Stairs is an ambitious novel that at times overreaches and underachieves, but in the end reverberates with a quiet, lingering power that leaves the reader pondering the randomness of life and death, and the wisdom and futility of love.
It is December 2001, and Tassie Keltjin, a twenty-year-old college student from a rural Midwestern town–best known for its claim to alien invasion fame–is looking for a job. Shy and quiet, with no real experience, she comes across an ad for a babysitter, applying for the position with an ambivalence that seems to haunt every character in the book. “I liked children – I did! – or, rather, I liked them OK,” Tassie tells us early on, setting the stage for the seemingly random choices that populate the book. “They were sometimes interesting.”
She is hired by the Brink-Thornwood’s, a childless couple in the midst of adopting a baby. They eventually gain custody of an African-American girl named Mary Emma, paving the way for an extended series of diatribes on racism, religion, politics, and self-righteousness.
Moore, a well-regarded writer hailed as one of this country’s most brilliant, possesses a talent with the English language that few authors achieve; each word feels carefully chosen, every metaphor beautifully original and full of color, giving the book literary flair and depth. Moore breathes life into the mundane; the moon, for instance, is a “tangerine shard – an orange peel stuck up there like the lunch garbage of God,” the trees in autumn, “yam- and ham-hued maples.” It’s no surprise that Moore is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin; this is evident in nearly every sentence she crafts.
Lovely language alone isn’t enough to carry a novel, and despite a promising start, A Gate at the Stairs gets bogged down in the mundane about halfway through. Dinner party conversations overheard through ventilation shafts gobble up too many pages; every sentence reeks of cleverness – do people really talk this way? – and each idea drowns in its own self-importance. Moore ends up tackling too many subjects at once, seemingly because her characters are already on a rant (animal rights, for instance, is one of several unnecessary detours that throw the story off track). And just when Moore rights the ship, there is a scene late in the book that stretches the limits of credibility beyond the breaking point, making the preceding 300 pages feel more like a tall tale than a realistic slice of life.
Despite this, A Gate at the Stairs is a very satisfying read thanks to an immensely likable protagonist. Tassie embodies not only the awkward innocence of girls on the verge of womanhood, but a country on the verge of war and in the grip of various types of change–climate, political, and moral. Often stunning, occasionally disappointing, it nonetheless makes a big statement in lyrically grand fashion.
Reviewed by Mark Petruska