With “The Accomplished Guest,” Ann Beattie yet again reveals herself as one of literature’s most liberating figures. Book after book, her writing affirms a beguiling originality. In her new collection of 13 stories, whose locales vary from Key West to Virginia and Maine, the stark indignities of aging, friends reuniting, loneliness and travel are common threads. With shrewd empathy and a Geiger counter ear for dialogue, Beattie sounds the grace notes — and the fall-from-grace notes — of her characters’ lives.
Beattie especially savors the abject drama of weddings and birthdays, where her vivid prose spikes the fever of human haplessness and showcases our most crass imperfections. In the story “The Astonished Woodchopper,” she combines discordant family history with real-time slapstick conversation to capture the cacophonic exhaustion of a wedding. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Near the story’s end, the essential problem the host family has to solve is, simply, who should pick a relative up at the airport. And it’s just here, with perfect timing, that Beattie offers an example of her signature mordant humor:
“Dolph, hello,” John said, covering one ear from the crying baby in its mother’s arms nearby, the mother holding her high heels in one hand and clasping her crying baby with her other arm.
“For once in your life, you’ve got to be helpful,” his brother shouted. “Look, her son was coming back to surprise her. You’ve got to go to the airport and meet the plane. Let me give you the information.”
“Dolph,” he said, “why do you have to get married right this minute?”
“The minister’s on his way!” Dolph said.
“No, he’s not. He’s running around yelling at cars like some L.A. valet who just had a psychotic break.”
“Then send him! Tell him to get going,” Dolph said.
The night after reading “The Astonished Woodchopper,” I dreamed that I’d tried to sabotage my despicable uncle’s fourth wedding, and I woke up laughing and crying. Beattie’s stories can rattle your unconscious mind like that. Her devoted readers — I’ve been one for 40 years — know exactly what I’m talking about here.
A favorite of mine in this stellar collection, “The Indian Uprising,” begins when the narrator, Maude, is invited by her former poetry professor, Franklin, to celebrate his 71st birthday in Washington. Maude takes the train from Charlottesville, and they go to a Mexican restaurant, where her ex-husband walks in with a beautiful woman.
Soon enough, things fall apart. “I’d dropped my napkin,” Maude says. “As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up. But my mind was racing: There’d been a stain on Franklin’s sock. Had he stepped in something on the way to the restaurant, or was it, as I feared, blood? I waited until the nice waiter wasn’t looking and pushed back the tablecloth enough to peek. The stain was bright red, on the foot with the unfastened Velcro.”
From coming unhinged at the sight of her ex, too much wine and perhaps the shock of witnessing signs of Franklin’s mortality, Maude faints. Franklin is taken by ambulance to the hospital. Maude had earlier been informed of Franklin’s rickety heart and diabetes, and therefore this dinner set piece is all the more affecting, precisely because Maude must’ve realized she was dining with a beloved figure not long for this world.
Later, Maude wistfully reports, “Then winter ended and spring came, and I thought, ‘Even if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story.’ A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.” This passage feels as if Maude has chosen to continue, ad infinitum, the conversation about life and literature with her old professor.
When I read Beattie’s stories, I think of Chekhov’s; when I read Chekhov’s stories, I think of Beattie’s. Both are writers for the ages. Chekhov suggested that every day imposes a precarious mood, and we either submit to the point of damage, or we struggle to transcend it, trying to gain some equilibrium, and even discover a little happiness. Beattie’s characters can be adept at both. She is one of our few contemporary masters of storytelling.
Howard Norman’s novel “My Darling Detective” was published earlier this year.
By Ann Beattie
Scribner. 270 pp. $26