A Gate at the Stairs
By Lorrie Moore
336 pages; Knopf

All great tragedians are fierce ironists as well—think of Sophocles or Shakespeare. It's a strategy Lorrie Moore grasps, particularly now that much of her work takes place in an implacably unironic American Midwest. You can laugh, as I did, reading in the early pages of Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs , her college-age narrator Tassie's droll remarks on her mortality: "Death would come to me—I knew this from reading British poetry," but even here, while the book is struggling to its feet, you can feel it gathering its haunting power. Tassie is a farm girl in a local college town, hired, prematurely, to babysit by a sophisticated, despairing, soon-to-adopt mother in a bad marriage. The adoption goes badly as does much else. Tassie is the classic American narrator, both smart and innocent, offered an accidental intimacy with the dangerous spectacles we make of family and race and violence and desire. Tragedy comes when the spectacle overtakes Tassie's own life and she's forced to share in its profound grief. The ending of this book is a miracle of lyric force, both beautiful and beautifully constructed, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision. With great writers this precision is achieved with such irregular tools as voice and convictions and social gestures, reacting to circumstances and events—or, better, as Lorrie Moore shows us in this fine book—to the mysteries of love, agony, and grace.

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