|ANN BEATTIE (Sigrid Estrada)|
Distilled, chilly novella tracks a May-December pair
Every mammoth on its own ice floe was how a professor, imported from the more sociable University of Chicago, described the Harvard faculty: stars all, but lacking in collegiality.
Much the same could be said of the overbred and mutually isolated sophisticates that Ann Beattie began to create in the 1970s. Her short stories and novels incised a particular breed of New Yorkers as indelibly as Dickens did with his London cockneys. “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” appropriately, was the title of one of her best-known books.
Fashions change; Beattie’s minimalism has lost some of its cut, and her steady output has thinned; her last collection was published in 2005. At first glance “Walks With Men” may seem no more than a replay of her past writing. It is considerably more: an envoi. The kind of distillation that, with its accelerated summing-up, intensifies the essence of an extended work. Paul Scott’s “Staying On,” capping his Raj Quartet, is an example; so is the speeded-up coda at the end of Beethoven’s “Waldstein’’ sonata.
“Walks,” at 102 pages, is technically a novella. In fact, told in a series of jump cuts, its silences suggesting a great deal that is missing, it is a series of archeological fragments from which a longer work can be pieced together.
Recorded years later by the narrator, Jane, its tersely epigrammatic fragments tell of a brilliant young Harvard graduate, as ambitious as she is naïve, arriving in Manhattan and falling prey to a man twice her age. Neil is the fortified essence of the New York intelligentsia and a seeming open sesame into how to succeed in it. He has left a Barnard professorship to become a glamorously sought-after writer. His shape-shifting charm is as mesmerizing to a young initiate as the rhythmic weaving of a cobra’s hooded head to its prey.
Jane hits town as an instant celebrity. Through a much-publicized interview denouncing her gilded education, she has become the seeming voice of the new generation (a disposable item the media is continually on the lookout for). Neil publishes an op-ed piece setting it all in a learned literary context and proposing marriage. She writes back saying she will let him know, and the gullibility trap is sprung.
“I didn’t get it,” she recalls. “The ironies within ironies; certainly not the fact that he was only sending up a speculative thought balloon that I mistook for an advertising dirigible.”
Ironic but heat-seeking, Neil moves in on her. He dazzles her with his success, his assurance, his entrée into the world she covets, and above all, with the rules he lays down. On first meeting he buys her a Barbour jacket, “shocked that [she], a person of such good taste, didn’t already have one.” The epigrams follow. Turgenev is greater than Dostoevsky. Use crystal wine glasses for orange juice. It is morally wrong to have a pure-bred dog. Never miss a solar eclipse. Choose movies according to the cinematographer. Not just one-upmanship but e=mc-squared-upmanship. But beneath the rules, a sucking vacuum.
Neil and Jane move in together, separate over his infidelities, get married, separate again, come together, until finally he disappears, leaving her a fortune. She hardly needs it, having become a successful writer. There is a weakish side story about a spacey former lover killed by a subway train; another about a friend whom she stays with for a while and who, in a letter years later, shows us Jane not just as victim but as a chilly exploiter in her turn.
“Walks” is a matter not of sadder and wiser but colder and wiser. Kafka’s over-quoted phrase calls literature the ax used to chop at our frozen interior; Beattie’s ax — or Jane’s, who is largely her alter ego — is itself frozen. Her story is told not as ground encounter but aerially, from a predator drone whose remote target is herself as well as Neil.
Yet in a coda, brief and all of a sudden without mannerism, there is a warming. Older, successful, Jane visits Carl, her stepfather, a kind man of no pretensions. Old and beginning to fail, his wife long dead, he shares a house with Stanley, who is crotchety and failing even further. In Beatty’s portrait of the odd couple, all the distancing judgments fall away.
With his incipient Alzheimer’s — he can’t find his shoes; they turn up on the mantelpiece — Stanley retains a quietly comic dignity. Carl’s admiration for his celebrity stepdaughter is without edge — but rather a matter of we, who are about to die, salute you. Jane — and Beattie — find in acceptance the most authentic combat; in decline, the most human success.
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@ gmail.com.