ARDIS BASCOMBE, the "beautiful girl" of Alice Adams' title story, was once "a small and slender blackhaired girl, with amazingly wide, thickly lashed dark-azure eyes and smooth, pale, almost translucent skin -- a classic Southern beauty, except for the sexily curled, contemptuous mouth. And brilliant, too: straight A's at Chapel Hill. An infinitely promising, rarely lovely girl: everyone thought so." Now, 20 years later, the tobacco heiress and former beauty queen at North Carolina is bloated and bleary-eyed, "sitting in the kitchen of her San Francisco home, getting drunk." She is also waiting for a visitor, a man who had worshipped her from afar in those college days and yet at the same time had almost hated her because she had seemed so unattainable. When Ardis passes out on the kitchen table, her visitor begins to murmur in her ear about a place in Connecticut where he wants to take her to dry out: "I want you to be my beautiful girl again --" But his words penetrate her alcoholic stupor, and Ardis raises her head and stares at him. "I am a beautiful girl,' * she rasps out, furiously."
No other writer in recent memory has called to mind quite so clearly the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, both in style and subject matter, as Alice Adams does in these 16 short stories. But to say that her work resembles Fitzgerald's -- a resemblance that was apparent in her novels, Carless Love, Families and Survivors and Listening * to Billie -- is not to suggest that Adams is some sort of second-rate imitator. Like all writers of any significance, she knows her past, her inheritance, and has learned how to use it in her own time and place; it is a matter of carrying on and extending a particular tradition.Writing in 1945, Lionel Trilling called Fitzgerald "perhaps the last notable writer to affirm the Romantic fantasy, descended from the Renaissance, of personal ambition and heroism, of life committed to, or thrown away for, some ideal of self." Trilling's obituary for that commitment was perhaps premature; Romantic idealism has been sighted in several forms in the last 30 years, even on the road with Jack Kerouac, and it is most certainly alive and well in the fiction of Alice Adams.
But these are, after all, not the '20s, but the '70s, when our response to history has been not the hedonistic grand gestures of an earlier generation, but a quieter, more muted turning inward. Although the times may not call for characters on the scale of a Jay Gatsby or a Dick Diver, the search for love, for the self in others, goes on, and the characters in Beautiful Girl have not given up the search.
They are, for the most part, extraordinary ordinary people, men and women with a certain heightened sensitivity to life, an acute awareness, a level of emotional response that is well above average. The young man in "A Jealous Husband" comes to see that he is more in love with his wife's secret love affair than with her. In "For Good" a 12-year-old girl reveals a remarkable understanding of the adult relationships going on around her. "A Pale and Perfectly Oval Moon" chronicles a couple's complex response to the wife's impending death. In "Roses, Rhododendron," winner of the O. Henry Prize as the Best Short Story of 1976, a woman recalls how she came to love a friend's family and learns something of what that relationship had meant to all of them.
And what Alice Adams' characters don't understand about their lives, their creator does. Like Fitzgerald, she has a fine satiric eye softened by a tenderness toward human desire and frailty. The first three stories in the book introduce us to the Todds, carrying us through a period of 35 years in their lives. "Verlie I Say Unto You," surely one of the finest of these fine stories, shows both the inadequacy of the Todds' response to their black housekeeper's grief at the death of her lover and Jessica Todd's dim awareness of her feeling of kinship with the sorrowing Verlie. All three of the Todd stories, in fact, satirize the family -- Tom's pomposity and assumptions of male superiority, Jessica's vague romantic longings, their styles of decorating and entertaining, their ways of trying on new lovers and spouses and psychiatrists like so many new clothes -- while at the same time gently reminding us how we are all caught in the human predicament of loss. Part of their power to move us lies in Adams' ability to sustain a delicate tension between ideas of free will and circumstance, of how we choose and are chosen.
A great deal of a writer's success is related to the strength of his "voice"; it is a difficult factor to define, impossible to identify by quotation because its essence is continuous and cumulative. In Alice Adams' case the voice of her prose gives a certain tone and pitch to her sentences, a certain richness and fullness of style that has to do with the warmth she feels toward the people she writes about.
It is refreshing and hopeful to find a writer in this day and time who, although recognizing love's possibilities for destruction, can still write about the ways in which love, both sexual and platonic, is akin to salvation. Months after a summer love affair, a young woman realizes ("Home is Where") how much it taught her about the possibilities of happiness; the speaker in "Attrition" comes to accept change and loss as part of a process in which "almost anything seems possible." Sometimes, of course, as Fitzgerald wrote late in his life, neither love nor friends can save us -- they certainly don't save Ardis Bascombe or Jessica Todd or Richard in "The Swastika on Our Door" any more than they saved Jay Gatsby. But, as the Fitzgerald who created Gatsby knew, it is in the searching that we are most human, most ourselves. And that, too, is a kind of salvation. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Photo by Alice Adams, Copyrighted (c) by Harry Fong.