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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Top of the Stairs is about loss, cruelty of others, as well as prejudice, dishonesty and betrayals that somehow combine humor with heartbreak. Hanan Al-Shaykh biography, The Locust and the Bird, will send those of us who aren’t familiar with her earlier books rushing to the library. Nine Lives, Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum may be nonfiction, but the author makes it as affecting as any novelist could.

by Lorrie Moore, © 2009
Published by Knopf/Random House; Hardcover, 322 pp

Those of us who became fans of Lorrie Moore’s when we first read her short stories in The New Yorker will welcome the publication of her new novel, the first in over a dozen years. Ms. Moore, who couples her career as novelist/short story writer extraordinaire with a professorship at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, may take her own sweet time between novels, but what she has produced is worth our wait.

A Gate at the Stairs is told in the voice of a 20-year-old college girl named Tassie Keltjin. Tassie has left her family back on the farm, and stepped cautiously into the world of a university. The plot unfolds in present time, a post 9/11 America that is mired in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The jacket art for this book shows a set of airport stairs, standing alone on the tarmac. Taking an airplane flight is not a bad metaphor for the launch between childhood and maturity: once you get through the gate and onto the plane, you find yourself at the faced with circumstances beyond your control, without the frame of reference or protection of your home and family. You may find yourself sitting on the tarmac for hours due to mechanical breakdown; or instead of reaching your destination, you may find yourself circling some unknown airport, waiting for a letup in thunder clouds. You may find yourself dealing with the minor annoyance of sitting beside someone with sharp elbows, or you may suddenly be in the hands of violent hijackers. Or you may get to your destination only to find that your luggage was lost en route. In any event, the question becomes: And then what do you do?

However things fall out, you are on your own in an unforgiving environment that doesn’t let you be in charge. What counts is not necessarily what happens, but how you react to what happens.

Lorrie Moore possesses an uncanny ability to get straight to the heart of matters, pulling us in to Tassie’s first love and enthusiastic first sexual experiences in a matter-or-fact telling that somehow combines humor with heartbreak. In fact, it is this clear-eyed ability to relate pain without abandoning humor that makes Ms. Moore’s writing several cuts above most of the coming-of-age literature out there. Her honesty and wry, mordant humor lend perspective to events that are otherwise quite unbearable.

This is a novel about loss — the loss of a lover, the loss of a child, the loss of a family member (the latter through violent death) — and the resilience necessary to absorb the loss and move on with life. It is also a story about the cruelty of others. Prejudice, dishonesty, and betrayals (both active betrayals and passive betrayals) all have a part in Tassie’s tale.

It would be hubris to try to re-tell this story in a brief review. It needs every word and page of Ms. Moore’s genius to do so. Not only does she give us a pitch-perfect glimpse into young Tassie’s life; she also renders college life as the odd collection of experiences that it can be. Coursework and grades are hardly Tassie’s main concerns. She receives B’s for almost no involvement or effort, a sad commentary on professorial expectations and student insouciance, and to my observation, alas, quite believable.

I almost never recommend books to my close friends. We are a diverse bunch, and I don’t want my remembered love of a good read dented by having to defend my tastes to others whose tastes and mind-set can be widely different from my own. Let them find their own favorites. But in this case, I will go out on a limb and say that — aside from a macabre and far-out incident near the end of the book which stretched even my good will — I can recommend A Gate At The Stairs with warm enthusiam.

The book is worth the read for just the final two sentences, which must be right up there with the greats — but don’t peek ahead. It would be a shame to spoil it for yourself.


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Culture Watch Archives

©2009 Julia Sneden


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