Friday, June 18, 2010

Remembering The Eighties

I've been reading Ann Beattie for thirty years. I can still remember, in the long ago 80's, scanning the table of contents when my New Yorker arrived to see if it included one of her short stories. I'd wait until the kids were asleep, then reward myself with a good read. Her characters were often confused or uncertain, her style was spare and understated, and I always felt that I recognized the world she described. The fact that she is around my age and was born and raised in my hometown may have added to my feeling that we were from the same tribe, although her contingent led far more interesting lives than I did.

In her latest novel (more like a novella) Walks With Men, Beattie revisits the 80's with the story of a twenty-one year old woman who falls for an older man who promises that he will teach her everything she needs to know about men and life in general. (Would that have appealed to me when I was in my twenties? Maybe?). Although some of his advice (“When you travel to Europe, never wear a fragrance from the country you're in; Wear only raincoats made in England.”) seems laughable, Jane is fascinated, and leaves her boyfriend Ben (who later changes his name to Goodness) and their communal life on a farm in Vermont to live with Neal in Manhattan.

Beattie is known for her minimalist style, and her characters' motivations sometimes seem inexplicable, but I still wished I knew a little more about why Jane made the choices she did. Nonetheless, I love Beattie's ability to reveal characters through tiny flashes of dialog or observation. As in many of her short stories, the ending is unexpected, leaves questions unanswered, but is oddly satisfying.

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