Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America was one of the best short story collections of the ’90s. Her talent for seeing humor in — as a palliative for — the experiencing of death and suffering, and the limpid, bittersweet tang of her prose, are unique in modern letters. Her “voice” is entirely her own, American and contemporary.
Though this is her third novel, Moore’s reputation, like Alice Munro’s, is for mastery of the short story. While fans of Birds of America might have yearned for another collection of stories, this book, almost 10 years in the making, should establish her as a master of the novel, as well.
Tassie Keltjin, a half-Jewish college student from a small potato farm in Wisconsin, tells the story of a single year in her young life. Entering the spring semester at a university in Troy, Wisconsin (a stand-in for Madison), she seeks a job as a childcare provider and, after a few desultory interviews, is employed by Sarah Brink, the owner of a gourmet restaurant, and her husband Ed, a cancer researcher.
There is no child yet, the couple is trying to adopt, and, oddly, as Tassie accompanies Sarah on visits to prospective birth mothers, she doesn’t even meet the husband until the second, eventually successful such encounter. Something is clearly wrong with this marriage.
The child they adopt is two years old, beautiful, and of mixed-race. Sarah, confronted with the child’s name, Mary, having had her heart set on calling her Emma, compromises with Mary-Emma. She finds a way to have her own way by calling the child by her initials, M. E., “Emmie”. Such rationalizations are at the heart of Sarah’s quixotic personality.
Tassie acclimates to the family routine and becomes an indispensable fixture in the household. A musician and something of a poet at heart, she has a knack for entertaining children and a flexibility of character that allows her to judge others with a clear but forgiving eye.
Her contentment is doubled when she finds a boyfriend and her first lover, Reynaldo, a Brazilian she meets passing funny notes during a class on Sufism. That her protestations of love are met with silence can’t diminish the almost spiritual force of their lovemaking.
The chapters dealing with months of domestic felicity in the Brinks home are both enlivened and marred by four lengthy recitations of overheard cocktail discussion. Sarah has discovered first hand the challenges facing mixed-race families in the form of prejudices both blatant and subtle and, in a fit of liberal outrage, establishes an every-Wednesday discussion group composed of other such families. The clichéd liberal pieties spouted are clearly not out of sympathy with Moore’s own outlook, though pieties they are, and Tassie’s funny interjections keep these many pages from bogging down entirely.
All along, the domestic situation has seemed tenuous. Ed, we learn, is a philanderer, though he gets nowhere with Tassie, and Sarah is too caught up in the management of her restaurant to fully engage with motherhood and bond with Mary-Emma.
Reynaldo too, proves unreliable. Tassie arrives at his apartment to find him ready to leave for Europe. He reveals that he is in fact a Muslim, but pleads with her to tell others that he was never been “a member of a cell.”
The novel already turning from light comedy toward tragedy, Sarah reveals the truth about the Brink’s past, a terrible mistake that, among other tragedies, must now result in Emmie being taken from them by the adoption agency – a development they have neither the will nor force of character to fight. This failure, and the loss of Emmie and Reynaldo, leaves Tassie confused and listless, and she returns home for the summer.
Though it’s made clear from the beginning of the novel that 9/11 occurred recently, only the previous September, A Gate At The Stairs doesn’t become a novel about 9/11 until Reynaldo’s departure and Tassie’s return home, where she finds that her brother has enlisted in the Army. Her parents are beside themselves with anger at the predatory recruiter’s pursuit of their son.
The summer progresses quietly, Tassie helping her father by running in front of his harvesting equipment dressed up like a hawk to scare away the mice. She even takes to running around in the costume by herself just for the sense of freedom in its imitation of flight.
The death of her brother ends this idyll and his funeral brings the novel to an excruciating climax. Without revealing the specifics, let’s just say that Moore answers the Bush administration’s policy of hiding the return of soldier’s bodies from Afghanistan and Iraq from the public eye with a look closer than you might imagine.
The novel concludes in a tone of wan hope, with Tassie wiser and stronger, though forever sadder. With the next to the last line Moore reveals what perhaps many readers will have noticed long before – Tassie’s kinship with Jane Austen’s youthful heroines.
This book is — not above all, but in the service of all — funny. Moore is not shy about the bad joke, and never pushes a great one too far. Her humor, always pointed at insight and elaboration, strikes the perfect balance between taste and feeling.