Beattie back with a sense of perspective

  • Fri Sep 17th, 2010 12:30pm
  • Life

By David L. Ulin Los Angeles Times

”Walks With Men,” by Ann Beattie; Scribner (102 pages, $10 paper)

Ann Beattie’s new novella, about a young woman’s superficial yet profound transformation, is characterized by acute language and deep insight.

I remember my Ann Beattie moment. It was in the fall of 1984, just after I’d graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I was living in Manhattan and, while trying to get up the nerve and the funds to move to California, working the phones for the Harris Poll. Three days a week, I’d sit in a cubicle and read potential respondents a list of survey questions, my voice flat and uninflected, while supervisors monitored my calls. It felt a lot like the disaffected lives Beattie chronicled in her first novel, “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” which, perhaps not coincidentally, I was reading at the time.

On the heels of college — four years as an English major, reading Kafka, Joyce and Faulkner — Beattie seemed a revelation: direct, deceptively unnuanced, her stories elliptical, even unresolved. I could recognize myself in her characters, in their situations: rootless, post-1960s people for whom the freedom to do anything had morphed into the freedom to do nothing, possibility giving way to ennui.

And yet, that ennui came to bore me fairly quickly … as ennui often does. My Beattie moment ended not long after I left the Harris Poll, by which time I had finished “Chilly Scenes” and “Distortions,” her first collection of short work. For a few years, I dutifully bought each new Beattie book as it came out, although I knew I’d never read it; I had moved on to other things. Beattie, I felt, had nothing left to give me.

Beattie’s new novella, “Walks With Men” is the first book of hers I’ve read since then, a spare, impressionistic portrait of a young woman who gets involved with a middle-aged writer (shades of Joyce Maynard and J.D. Salinger?) after he reads an interview with her in the New York Times.

Opening in fall 1980, it’s a throwback in a lot of ways, a valedictory for what we might call Beattie’s era. Interestingly, this is part of the lure of the book and part of its power. If Beattie’s early work was marked by an air of diffidence, a flatness of affect and language, “Walks With Men” evokes the depth beneath those surfaces, exposing the very real loneliness of its narrator, whose sense of self is so thin, so malleable, that, under the sway of this older man, she is willing to be fundamentally transformed.

“You’re smart,” he tells her, “but you’re missing basic knowledge that will eventually stop you dead in your tracks.”

The novella, then, uses their relationship — its ebbs and flows, its stops and starts — to trace the arc of her development, which is superficial and profound.

For Beattie, this is essential to the character, but it’s also endemic to the period, in which the countercultural fallout of the 1960s and 1970s yielded to collective drift.

“You make the reasonable assumption,” she writes early in the book, “that two egotistical people had found each other, shipwrecked like millions of others on the island of Manhattan. It was 1980. Carter was committing adultery in his heart and not getting the hostages freed from Iran, and everyone felt unsettled. The ‘70s were grinding to a halt like stripped gears. When the talk wasn’t about the number of days the hostages had been held, it was about money. Being disenfranchised had about as much cachet as paying for things with cash. Bon Temps Rouler did not exist then — or, rather, it did, though it was not yet the name of a restaurant in lower Manhattan.”

That’s a terrific passage — not just for the acuity of its language but also for the depth of its insight. It is this that distinguishes “Walks With Men”: a sense of perspective, of history, of where the pieces of its characters’ lives may fit. We get a feeling of earned wisdom, of both the author and the narrator looking back. It’s the opposite of nostalgia … or, as Beattie puts it: “I was too naive, even if you factor in that I was young.”