The novel is a first-person reminiscence from Tassie Keltjin of her years at university in Troy, WI. I’m assuming it is a representation of one of those American university towns like Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin where Moore teaches — Tassie is a farm-girl and Troy is regarded as a pseudo-sophisticate town where people think too highly of themselves (“they drink their own bathwater”). The action is set post 9/11, so even the memories are of a recent vintage.
If there is a central idea that runs through A Gate at the Stairs it is the frustrating dislocation and alienation of virtually every character in the book, with Tassie’s acquaintance with each of them the unifying element. Her father is an organic farmer with a small plot (Keltjin’s offbeat potatoes have their own fame); her mother is Jewish and that is just the start of her Wisconsin isolation and Tassie’s younger brother, Robert, is confused enough that he is considering enlisting in the U.S. army as his most viable option for the future. Here’s Tassie returning home for “Christmas” from college:
My mother had sprung for eggnog, and a little brandy, and although my father had already gone to bed she and Robert and I sat up for twenty minutes or so, with a coffee log burning low in the fireplace and a plate of gingersnaps on the mantel before we were all too tired to pretend. The coffee log was a favorite of my mother’s although to me it smelled less like coffee and more like a burning shoe. “I’d light the menorah,” said my mother, “but remember what happened last year with the curtains catching on fire.” The curtains had gone up in a blaze and we had thrown a punch bowl of eggnog on them to douse the flames, and the eggnog had sizzled and cooked into the fabric until the whole house smelled like a diner omelet.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll light the menorah tomorrow for you.” Though I would forget to do it. Every year it was my job to clean it, scrape off the previous year’s wax with pins and a fork, so perhaps my forgetting was convenient.
That excerpt is a good example of two Moore traits: she has an exceptional eye for telling little details and she loves a good gag (“the whole house smelled like a diner omelet”).
She also cares about families that don’t quite work out according to the norm. In addition to the Keltjin’s, the novel explores Sarah and Edward, a liberalish couple (Sarah owns Troy’s fancy restaurant, Edward is a scientist) who hire Tassie as a part-time nanny. Actually they hire her before they even have a child on hand; Tassie is taken along for the adoption interviews which eventually result in the arrival of a mixed-raced child, Mary, renamed Mary-Emma, quickly shortened to Emmie. Moore uses this family as another platform. Troy may be tolerant, but mixed-race families still think they feel discrimination and Sarah and Edward begin hosting a support group. Tassie tends the children of all the members while the parents meet downstairs:
On Wednesday nights … the house filled up with visitors and their remarks. Contentious shards of discussion floated upward like dust shaken from a rug.
“Postracial is a white idea.” This again. It has all begun to sound to me like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat.
“A lot of ideas are white ideas.”
“Its like postfeminist or postmodern. The word post is put forward by people who have grown bored of the conversation.”
“And the conversation remains unresolved because it’s not resolvable. It’s not that kind of conversation. It’s merely living talk. Whereas you put post in front of it — what is that? It’s saying ‘Shut the hell up. We’re tired and we’re going to sleep now’.”
“If you reject religion, you reject blackness.”
“Black culture here is just southern culture moved north, that’s all.”
“Well, that’s not all.”
“Blacks have preserved the South up here — the cooking, the expressions, the accents — better than the southern whites who’ve moved here have.”
This overheard support-group conversation goes on for some pages and it is no spoiler to say that it is not resolved — it does supply Moore the opportunity to explore white liberal attitudes towards race and insert a few more gags (“Why do black people get so tall?” “Why?” “Because their knee grows!” she squealed with delight.)
In addition to the two families and their issues, Tassie has an unconvincing affair with Reynaldo, whom she thinks is Portugese but it turns out may, or may not, be a member of an Islamic cell. It is one of the less convincing story lines in the book. Tassie is also a bass player (both guitar and a difficult electonic upright version — her email address is “bassface-at-isp-dot-com”) and she and her roommate, Murph, spend some time jamming, improvising and semi-rapping when both their love affairs break up.
I think those thumbnail story lines illustrate the problems that I found with the book. While dislocation and alienation may be the uniting themes of the book, it proceeds in a very episodic fashion and never acquires the flow that one has a right to expect from a successful novel. Moore is a very talented writer and some of her gags really are quite good. (As someone whose knowledge of Wisconsin is pretty much confined to the Green Bay Packers — and cheese –, she does construct some very good riffs on the green-and-gold football team and its impact on the state.)
The result of all this is that I am pretty much convinced that I started my Moore reading with the wrong book. She seems to be better known for her short stories and I am left wishing that I had started with one of her short story collections (Birds of America (1998) seems to be held in highest regard — one story was an O Henry Award winner that year). The observational skills, the gags and the ability to add life to seemingly trivial details all serve the short story writer well. For a novelist, alas, they tend to produce clutter rather than focus.
I don’t regret reading A Gate at the Stairs but do admit I was eager for it to end. Throughout the latter part of the book, I had the feeling that I was experiencing a very good writer not at her best. Had I more experience with her short stories, I think I would have been far more tolerant. Heck, even Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had their off days, although to date the cheese gives Vermont a run for its money. I’ll give Birds of America a try sometime down the road.