While chiefly heralded for her prowess as a writer of short fiction, the Wisconsin-based Lorrie Moore has in fact spent her career alternating between novels and story collections. Her newest novel, A Gate at the Stairs—which is also her first book in more than a decade—brings the count even once again: three to three. Sadly, it doesn’t hit nearly as many high notes as Moore’s devout fan base has come to expect.
It’s fall 2001, and 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin, recently uprooted from the farmland of her youth to the nearby university town of Troy, needs a job. She’s inexplicably drawn to the childcare section on employment corkboards, and before long lands a gig baby-sitting for a pleasant but muted couple who are about to adopt. Racial politics then explode into the picture when the toddler, who is visibly one-quarter black, becomes a lightning rod for the midwestern town’s ugly prejudices. The general frenzy of post–9/11 life only adds to the tension.
When plunked alongside Troy’s chattering middle class, which is where the novel spends roughly half its time, Tassie’s story works. Her murky relationship to the adoptive parents is nicely teased out, and, as ever, Moore is a master at writing about children. Wide-eyed Mary-Emma is the book’s crown jewel. These urban sections also contain glimpses of Moore’s trademark wit and descriptive panache. A fortune cookie is “a short paper nerve baked in an ear”; a coffee shop located near the law school is called On What Grounds.
But—and it is immensely strange to be saying this about a writer of Moore’s calibre—there are also big stretches of heel-dragging inactivity, particularly whenever Tassie returns home to her parents’ farm between semesters. Chores are performed and subplots are piled up, yet for the most part narrative tension is nowhere to be found.
In her best work, Moore is able to condense decades of emotional turmoil into a few dozen tightly wound pages. This is the very syrup of life: thick, exquisite, and almost unbearably rich. A Gate at the Stairs attempts to turn some of that syrup into a full glass of juice, but the result is too watery, and at times nearly transparent.
Bond Street Books, 322 pp, $29.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 22, 2009)