Quite a character - just not an entirely plausible one

LORRIE MOORE LORRIE MOORE (Andy Manis/ New York Times)
By William H. Pritchard
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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Although Lorrie Moore has published two novels before this new one, she is much more regarded as a writer of short fiction, especially for her first book “Self-Help’’ and her most recent, “Birds of America.’’

In an impressive story from the later volume, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,’’ a mother recounts the agonizing experience of her baby’s hospitalization for a cancerous tumor on his kidney. Naturally the woman and her husband are horrified; but what makes the horror a little worse is the reassuring language of the oncologist, as he speaks of “a little light chemo,’’ involving the substance dactinomycin. After he leaves, the woman says to her husband, “A little light chemo. Don’t you like that one . . . Eine kleine dactinomycin. I’d like to see Mozart write that one up.’’ The wit, as with Moore generally, is fierce, “funny’’ only in a way that crosses over into the painful.

“I distracted myself with language,’’ says the narrator of “A Gate at the Stairs,’’ and such distraction is central to most of the novel’s characters but especially to Tassie Keltjin, a university student in a Midwestern city named Troy (“The Athens of the Midwest’’).

Tassie’s parents and younger brother live in nearby Dellacrosse Central where her father raises gourmet vegetables and potatoes, which he supplies to élite restaurants in Chicago. For Tassie, whose brain she tells us is “on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir,’’ Dellacrosse and its inhabitants constitute “a kind of jokey curse from the start.’’ Like his daughter, Tassie’s father is practiced at making up original responses. When his son Robert, stumbling through high school, brings home a report card that sports four F’s and a D, Dad remarks, “Well, Robert, what can I say . . . It looks like you’re spending too much time on one course.’’ Robert, also a wit, thinks of opening an alternative to Holiday Inn called “The Normal Night Out Hotel.’’

But it is Tassie who gets the most opportunities to make “jokey curses.’’ Speaking of her parents as “quasi retired,’’ she confides how much she loves the word quasi instead of “sort of’’: “ ‘I am quasi ready to go,’ I would announce. Or, ‘I’m feeling a bit quasi today.’ ’’ The quasi riff occurs more than once in the novel, and it raises a question about Tassie early on: How much do we believe in her as a source of independent verbal comedy? How much is she rather the vehicle through which Moore can get off, one after another and in profusion, jokey play that distracts, in more than one sense, from the larger action of the novel.

That action is no joking matter. Tassie babysits for a white couple who adopt a mixed-race girl. The mother, Sarah Brink, is every bit as much of a dark humorist as Tassie, and when the little girl has the “n’’ word thrown at her by a lout in a passing car, Sarah organizes a regular Wednesday night gathering (“a spiritually gated community of liberal chat’’) involving concerned parents, whose children Tassie looks after while the elders drink wine and trade outrageous examples of the community’s formulations, usually racially condescending or unaware. Eventually Sarah reveals to Tassie the awful secret she and her husband have been living with for many years, as a result of which they have to give up the not-yet-fully adopted little girl.

This reader’s problem was what to do with Tassie, who seems at moments to know a lot about a lot of things, and at others to be clueless. With a brain fired by Chaucer and Plath, her course schedule, along with Brit Lit, includes “Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting, a music appreciation course titled “Soundtracks to War Movies,’’ and a geology course called “Dating Rocks.’’ The contents of Tassie’s kitchen are in an extreme state, with blackened bananas, fruit flies, and flour moths, “the cream cheese was a tub of dull green clay.’’ She owns, and occasionally plays, an electric bass, knows lots of recent tunes and Miles Davis but also has the soundtrack of “Oklahoma’’ going in her head. She idly uses her roommate’s vibrator to stir chocolate milk and has spent $45 to improve her bosom with “a black Taiwanese bra padded with oil and water pouches.’’ A plausible 20-year-old or something else?

Moore is endlessly inventive, astonishingly resourceful, great when she settles down to display the landscape of farm life or the grip of winter’s cold. Tassie has inherited all these capacities, not least the fanciful energy with which, say, her teacher of Sufism, “a self-described ‘Ottomanist,’ ’’ makes her think “of someone lying back with his feet up on a padded footstool, with a remote, in autumn.’’ Moore has more than once written accurately and appreciatively of John Updike, calling his stories “jewels of . . . domestic anguish and restraint.’’ By contrast, her own stories, as well as “A Gate at the Stairs,’’ are pretty unrestrained, the novel’s characters best described by Tassie when she likens them (including herself) to “characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. We were all grotesques.’’

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is the just-published “On Poets and Poetry.’’

By Lorrie Moore
Knopf, 322 pp., $25.95

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