Lorrie Moore is as clever as a cartload of monkeys with degrees in philosophy who can play the double bass and sing Happy Birthday in Portuguese. What a talent. The Gate At The Stairs has an irresistible voice in Tassie Keltjin, daughter of an offbeat potato farmer from the Midwest, who comes to university in the small town of Troy. Tassie’s curriculum is as left-field as she is: Brit Lit, Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting, a music appreciation course called Soundtracks to War Movies, and a geology course called Dating Rocks.
Here are some of Tassie’s observations:
Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured, and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly-controlled oxidation experiment. (11)
Sarah smiled briefly again as if I were still just the cutest thing but no longer what she was looking for in this job. (98)
With the baby she looks after:
I found myself saying “wheeee!” and “upsy-oopsy.” Mary-Emma just looked at me with neutral interest. It was a look I’d forgotten and never saw anymore in grownup people. But it was the best. It was fantastically engaged: scholarly, unjudging and angelic. (134)
Children like Mary-Emma, born to single mothers who can’t afford to keep them, are a commodity to be marketed by agents to well-heeled couples like Tassie’s employers Sarah and Edward. And Mary-Emma is Afro-American, which makes her less valuable. Lorrie Moore skewers both racism and political correctness around race in this increasingly deep, complex and ultimately shocking story. It’s very funny, but it hits hard, all the more so for the tenderness Moore shows for Mary-Emma.
And the same is true of Tassie’s account of life with her eccentric family back on the farm in Dellacrosse – full of charm but also of quiet desperation. Kids like her brother who don’t do well at school have two options, the army or the Dellacrosse Driving College. The town is full of unemployed graduates from the DDC. So Tassie’s brother joins the army, even while he’s reaching out to her to beg her to talk him out of it.
Tassie’s iconoclastic take on life reminded me of Holden Caulfield, but she doesn’t have Holden’s certainty about himself and his judgments. It’s a wise and beautiful account of the way life teaches us, how we’re always learning too late things we think we should have realised before. And then on we go.
Very highly recommended.