Coming of age cruelly and coming of age late are the unsparing leitmotifs of two potent new novels -- Joyce Carol Oates' "Little Bird of Heaven" and Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs."

Both books are brilliant but devastating -- Oates' in particular as her Stygian take on the world is relentless here; Moore's less so as she cannot help but spread her quick wit all over the terrors-that-be.

That both authors are masters of the Gothic tale is a given, with Moore's work instantly addictive and Oates' an acquired, then captive, taste.

In a duel? Oates would win. No question. But Moore is also fun, even in the face of real darkness.

In her new novel's Tassie Keltjin, Moore has created a highly intelligent but naive young woman -- on her own for the first time and, like a modern-day Jane Eyre, seeking work as a "childcare provider."

Almost immediately, Tassie is in the dubious employ of restaurateur Sarah Brink -- a quirky 45-year-old who looks, to Tassie, "like a highly controlled oxidation experiment." Sarah, it seems, is about to adopt a child with her researcher-husband, Edward.

Sarah wants Tassie along when the child is "chosen," causing Tassie to feel ill at ease: "Motherhood like radar or radiation was radiantly in the air," she notes (in a sentence reflecting Moore's playfulness with words).

Nor does Tassie's apprehension abate as Edward joins Sarah and Tassie in the "acquisition" of the glorious little half-black Mary-Emma:

"A kind of stunned trio, Sarah, Edward, and I stepped outside into this town of . . . what? A tundra of closing mills, pro ball, anxious Catholicism. The late afternoon of our exhalations hung in brief clouds before us. The thought balloon of my own breath said, How have I found myself here? It was not a theological question. It was one of transportation and neurology."

Then comes an even stranger moment: Sarah and Edward "pay" for Mary-Emma with separate checks -- a sum of $9,127.50 each to the adoption agency (with a "really nice" watch to come, for the birth mother, Bonnie).

Tassie, of course, is right in her foreboding. Something is "off" here -- and, when the Brinks' shocking secret is revealed, far into the book, we are rocked but ready.

Along the way, we are treated to Moore's wonderful ability to treat serious subjects with reverence but also with humor (which often morphs into hilarity).

In this manner, biracial adoption, post- 9/1 1 fear, the terror of parents with offspring in Iraq all come into powerful play for farm-bred Tassie, a product of vanishing small-town America.

The times also impact Krista and Aaron, the two narrators of Oates' stunning new 1980s tale of youth exposed-to-too-much (in yet another "doomed" municipality).

Here we find all of Oates' great, dark themes -- adolescent angst and abuse; overpowering love, rage and betrayal; struggling, disillusioned parents; sexual violence, unrelenting cruelty, cheap thrills, rhinestone glamour.

Even nature is at its most menacing here:

"There was a curve in the Huron Pike Road . . . A curve in the road along the glittery river where ice was broken along the shore like ravaged teeth."

Oates suggests her native Western New York roots again here, naming the city Sparta (there is a Sparta in Livingston County), and making numerous references to Buffalo and Chautauqua.

It is a time and a place ripe for the creation of one Zoe Kruller who, dead -- murdered! -- for the bulk of the book, nonetheless springs memorably from most of its pages, "her bronze-crimson two-inch cocktail-waitress nails" always poised to remind us.

Zoe is the connection here, Zoe the pretty ice cream girl at Honeystone's Dairy; the sequined songstress for the Black River Breakdown, a bluegrass band; Aaron's mother; Delray's wife, Eddy Diehl's mistress, Eddy being Krista's shamed father.

"Especially on stage at the bandstand, sexy-seductive in a spangled dress that left most of her thighs exposed and her strawberry-blond hair frizzed and crimped in a wild halo around her head so it looked like an electric bolt had shot through her, Zoe Kruller did not resemble any other wife/mother in Sparta."

It is thus that Krista remembers the mesmerizing Zoe who, at 34, is found dead in her bed -- beaten, strangled -- by her son, only 14 at the time.

Sparta is shaken, but Krista, 11, and Aaron are beyond shaken, both of their fathers suspects in the murder for the rest of their fathers' lives.

"You never think what these things must be like for people until they happen to you," Delray's sister, Viola, says tellingly as the tragedy that is Zoe's death reverberates down the years, both children remaining loyal to their fathers, Krista never losing her conflicted adoration for her disgraced father.

Aaron and Krista will acknowledge their bond, over time, but only one will emerge with an outlook beyond the Sparta of their youth.

A city, like its Greek predecessor, with courage in the face of pain, Sparta is obviously Oates' reminder that this is a tragedy as monstrous as tragedies of yore. Even Zoe's name (Greek for "life") underscores its scope.

Oates strikes a high note with this novel -- in which she has distilled her dark genius to a single person, act and place from which all flows.

She threads the "Little Bird of Heaven," song and lyrics, throughout the book in much the way Moore gives us several gates at the stairs in hers -- the gate which is broken, significantly, the one leading to the Brinks' home.

Both authors give us unforgettable protagonists in these new novels in which Aaron, Krista and Tassie all come of age.

But, oh, at what price!

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.



By Joyce Carol Oates


441 pages, $25.99



By Lorrie Moore


322 pages, $25.95