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Moore's Hallmark Mix Of Wit, Heartache In 'Gate'

Young writers fall in love with a Lorrie Moore sentence for all the wrong reasons, taken in by the surface dazzle of its wordplay, its steel-trap construction, the practiced and unshowy ease with which it unleashes a metaphor. Since Like Life, her 1985 debut collection, hers has been an often-imitated voice, and even though it's been 11 years since her last collection and 15 since her last novel, iterations of her wry, language-obsessed narrators continue to pop up in writing workshops, open readings and college literary journals across the nation. It's easy to see why; she's just one of those writers whose work invites you to crawl inside.

What her imitators tend not to grasp is that Moore's ironic humor and extended, punning riffs are not ends to themselves, but tools she wields, guided by a canny emotional sense. Jokes stream from her characters' mouths precisely because more painful truths cannot. In stories like "Terrific Mother," about a woman riven by guilt over her role in an accident that claimed an infant's life, and "People Like That Are The Only People Here," about a couple dealing with their child's cancer treatment, Moore's humor erects a wall around events that helps keep sentimentality at bay.

It's this same thorny patch of emotional terrain that Moore explores in her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, and even though we haven't visited it in over a decade, it feels like we never left. Here again are the writer's achingly perfect sentences, her deft descriptions. (On the feeling of being caught up by events: "After that, things moved with a swiftness and awkwardness both, like something simultaneously strong and broken.") And here again is Moore's resigned, self-mocking voice, that of a woman looking back on her younger self with a mixture of affection and disappointment.

In this case, that woman is Tessie Keltjin, and the self she's looking back on is a 20-year-old farmgirl still adjusting to college life in a large Midwestern town. As Tessie takes a babysitting job for an upscale white couple about to adopt a mixed-race child, A Gate at the Stairs finds its subject: how an initially formless young woman gradually shapes her perceptions and arrives at her adult self.

The novel's setting — a university town in the months immediately following the 9/11 attacks — allows Moore to affectionately tweak reflexively liberal thinking. When Tessie's employer learns that the girl has been singing "I Been Working on the Railroad" to her daughter, for instance, she takes her aside: "There's only two things I'm worried about with that; the grammar and the use of slave labor." The woman gathers fellow parents of black and brown children together for a protracted weekly salon on the everyday bigotry they face; Tessie hears these clever, circular conversations wafting up through the floorboards as she entertains their children in the upstairs nursery.

A Gate at the Stairs touches on racism, terrorism and the Gulf War, but can only do so glancingly; Moore's narrator observes but rarely appraises, letting the world happen to her. This breed of narrative passivity is another Moore hallmark — and an acquired taste. When bad things happen to her characters, as bad things invariably do, she has them retreat deeper inside themselves. Bad things eventually happen to Tessie and the people around her, but they do so in a sudden, disorienting, headlong rush at novel's end. After the comfy lassitude of the preceding pages, this cascade of events feels odd, but it's earned — Moore has prepared us for it from the novel's very first page.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.