Lorrie Moore unlocks 'A Gate at the Stairs'

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A GATE AT THE STAIRS, by Lorrie Moore. Alfred A. Knopf, 322 pp., $25.

Lorrie Moore inspires fierce loyalty, for good reason: She's the sheriff of a wild and lonely territory, in which empathetic people fight despair with charming words. Her language - its puns, musical refrains and catchphrases - only partly hides the sadness behind it. The result is that kind of silliness that peaks just seconds before bursting into tears.

The crises Moore addresses with high-spirited clowning have included romantic confusion, isolation, illness, death and even loss on a mass scale. Moore's new novel, "A Gate at the Stairs," artfully blends all these themes into a tale that's as much a shifting of emotional seasons as it is a narrative.

Tassie Keltjin, a student in a college town much like Madison, Wisc. (where Moore lives and teaches fiction), takes a job as a nanny for a dynamic but scattered restaurateur, Sarah, who's unable to conceive with her husband, Edward. The daughter Sarah adopts, a biracial little girl named Mary-Emma, brings out everyone's desire to nurture, but the question of how best to love remains foggy. The parents who attend Sarah's weekly rap sessions for parents of biracial children, preoccupied by origins and identity, can't seem to get beyond talking in excitable circles. At the same time, Tassie falls in love with a friendly Brazilian in her Sufism class. But something is clearly not right, with either him or Sarah and Edward.

Why is the past so incongruous and confusing? These are persistent questions for everyone, but particularly so for Tassie, who was raised by moderately successful organic farmers in the country outside this liberal town. Tassie, who's adjusting to work, love and living on her own, is continually stunned by newness, even as it amuses her. She can be the competent one on her volatile travels with the strong-willed Sarah and the vulnerable Mary-Emma, and with her slightly loopy roommate, but her dealings with the Brazilian are harder: she doesn't heed the drastic signs of trouble until it's far too late.

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Moore never says so explicitly, but civic life after 9/11 is a backdrop throughout: governments, employers, boyfriends, teachers and parents engage in doublespeak, only to deny it moments later. Perhaps the most uncomplicated voice here come in the e-mails from Tassie's younger brother, Robert, who is keenly seeking her guidance, but she's too distracted to oblige.

Unlike the parents' meetings, which sound like jumbled bumper stickers, Tassie's interior monologue is sharp and specific and, needless to say, extremely funny - all a familiar balm to Moore fans. Similarly, Tassie's conversations with her roommate are hilarious and true to life.

In the second half of the book, a terrible death enters the narrative. And Tassie's linguistic playfulness, which transforms ugly facts and incoherent action into logic and wit, becomes far darker - but also much more lyrical. She returns home, city to country, down to earth. This is a new country: a pastoral Lorrie Moore novel. Tassie grows up, yes, but this is no mere coming-of-age novel. She embraces the death that is part of life. In the process, she, and Moore the novelist, enter a new realm of maturity and understanding.

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