LOVE ALWAYS. By Ann Beattie. Random House. 247 pp. $16.95.
ANN BEATTIE has written a comic novel the principal shortcoming of which is that it is only infrequently funny, and then not very. Because Beattie is a smart and perceptive writer Love Always does have its moments -- a few snappy spoofs of advice-to-the-lovelorn columns, some tart dialogue, a biting sendup of show biz lingo -- but there are not enough of them to rescue a novel that is oddly disjointed and pointless. Reading Love Always is like watching an underpowered airplane attempt to take flight; the thing lumbers along the runway forever, creaking and groaning with a rather heart-rending desperation, but never getting off the ground and never going anywhere.
What Beattie seems to have had in mind is a satire of people who have in the past received sympatheic treatment in her fiction: the children of the '60s, erstwhile hippies and graduate students who are now pushing 40 and occupying an uncharted territory somewhere between the flower children they once were and the yuppies they haven't it quite in them to be. The people of Love Always, like so many in actuality, have retreated from the city to the rural fairyland of Vermont, but they have brought to the country their fundamentally urban, postgraduate attitudes and expectations; they've gone rural chic, which is to say they've acquired the trappings of country without having the foggiest understanding of (or interest in) what rural life is really like.
Thus we have Hildon, the publisher of a magazine called Country Daze, which has prospered off the back-to-nature movement yet is essentially indifferent to nature; its editorial philosophy, to the extent Beattie gets around to defining it, seems to be that "if you couldn't ignore things, making a joke seemed a feasible alternative" -- a stance owing considerably more to Woody Allen than to the Green Mountains. Hildon is a faded sophisticate whose deepest interests are sleek women and fashionable drugs, but from time to time he goes slumming by decking himself out in "a Born to Lose T-shirt, torn jeans, pointed-toe boots with spurs" -- all of it calculated to reveal him as the good old boy he most emphatically is not.
In differing ways this is true of all the oddballs he has lured to Vermont to put out the magazine, the one notable exception being Lucy Spenser, who under the pseudonym Cindi Coeur writes a tongue-in-cheek advice column for him. She hasn't gone phony country, but she has her problems anyway; these include what to do about Hildon, who is her longtime friend and occasional lover, what to do about Nicole Nelson, her 14-year-old niece, and what to do about her own life, which is considerably less controlled than her cool demeanor and elegant looks suggest. How all of these difficulties are resolved is intended to be the book's principal business, but, because Lucy is a frustratingly elusive character who never really comes into focus, none of it ever matters very much.
Instead the reader's attention is diverted to secondary business, the most amusing of which usually has to do with Nicole. She lives in Los Angeles, where she plays a prominent role in a soap opera called Passionate Intensity while her mother, Lucy's sister Jane, pursues her dream of ideal romance. It is in order to concentrate on the pursuit of one especially appealing prospect that she ships Nicole off to Lucy for the summer, thereby providing the novel with what is meant to be a comic contrast between the precociously jaded Californian and the rustics of Vermont. Many of the latter are soap-opera fans, and the presence of an actual soap-opera character in their midst is both a mystery and a wonder to them; but Beattie manages to squeeze fewer laughs from this than she does from Nicole herself, whose jazzy patter is a nice blend of Valley Girl inanities, show-biz cynicism and little-girl innocence.
BUT READING the conversation of a 14-year-old girl is much the same as listening to it; it quickly palls, which is precisely what happens in Love Always. Beattie does not help matters by abruptly shifting gears, suddenly turning Nicole into a poor little rich girl who doesn't have any friends and who views most of her personal relationships in Los Angeles as "business." This rather rapid descent from satire into clich,e strips Nicole of most of her interesting aspects, and once this happens there's very little left to the novel. A small parade of secondary characters moves in and out, but none of its members exists for any purpose beyond a thin spoof or a lame joke; the witless writer working on a "novelization" of the soap opera seems almost an afterthought, as do the youthful dishwasher to whom Nicole presents her virginity, the reporter doing a story about Country Daze and the local cops who wander in and out of various essentially extraneous events.
Towards the end Love Always turns serious almost as abruptly as Nicole turns clich,e. A most unfortunate event permanently alters the small world in which Lucy and Nicole live, forcing each to look more honestly at herself and the other. From this we are intended to conclude that nothing in life is immutable -- Lucy "felt sorry for all the people who didn't realize that their world could change in a second" -- and that people's lives invariably are messier than they seem to those on the outside. These are perfectly legitimate themes, but they seem attached to Love Always almost carelessly; little of the purportedly comic business that goes before has any particular or meaningful connection with them.
Love Always is in fact a strange performance. At an immediate, superficial level it is typical Beattie, populated as it is by bored, self-indulgent people who drift along on cocaine, white wine, marijuana and Valium, listening to pop music on the radio, playing with the large, shaggy dogs who are as omnipresent in Beattie's fiction as bears and wrestlers are in John Irving's. But all of that is just going through the motions. At a deeper level, Beattie does not seem to know what sort of book she is writing or how she feels about her characters. She can't quite choose between the comic and the serious, with the result that Love Always manages to be neither, and she can't quite decide whether her people are to be pitied or censured, with the result that her attitude toward them is transparently ambivalent. She's a gifted writer and at her best an interesting one, but Love Always is half-hearted and labored.