Unless one writes for the New York Review of Books, it’s difficult to address every story in a collection of stories. There is never enough space! So I’m going to focus on the stories I particularly loved in Ann Beattie’s new book, The State We’re In: Maine Stories, while remaining aware that other readers may have other favorites. There are fifteen stories in total. All of them, as the subtitle tells us, are primarily about women in the state of Maine.
I first heard of Ann Beattie when I was living in England. It was 1976. The local news agent would hold the NYT Book Review for me. I remember—or think I remember—Beattie’s photo and the review by J. D. O’Hara of her first two books, Chilly Scenes of Winter and Distortion. A rave review of two books! She was younger than I, and to see a woman writer so successful so early was both encouraging and discouraging. Dis- because I was older and, although published, far less successful. By now I’ve watched numerous young writers turned into stars. Some continue to be stars, some not, but stardom is surely not the important thing; the importance of literary accomplishments is revealed to us only over centuries. What I celebrate in Ann Beattie now is her devotion to writing, the solid catalogue of books she has built and can proudly stand on.
One recurring character in this newest collection is Jocelyn, whom we see in the first story, “What Magical Realism Would Be,” as a bratty and shallow teenager, annoyed, as many teenagers are, by almost everything, her mother and the whole world, which she perhaps sees as her mother writ large, aligned against her. This view of her will change as the stories progress. In fact, her mother is in a hospital, a guy she likes is in a hospital, and Jocelyn is spending the summer with her uncle, Raleigh, whom she semi-likes, and his wife, Bettina, whom she totally hates, attending summer school. The English teacher, Ms. Nementhal, requires ten papers from each student. Jocelyn resents the assignments and is upset to learn that the class she goes to is for “troubled teens.” She does not consider herself troubled. It is a pleasure to see her grow up by summer’s end.
In “Yancey,” the title character is a dog. Her owner—mistress? keeper? caretaker? friend-with-a-leash?—sees that Yancey is aging and may not have long to live. That owner also has a daughter, Ginger, who is married to a woman named Stephanie, who prefers to be called “Etienne.” They disapprove of the dog, on the grounds that Ginger’s mother is too old to have one. Beattie is wonderful at developing casts of characters who come together from unanticipated angles. The mother—the narrator—recounts a visit from an IRS examiner who turns out to be really lovely, sympathetic, cheerful, and kind. She keeps looking for signs of treachery but there are none. He confesses that his wife drinks. She winds up asking him if he’d like to come live with her. He declines, but the conversation continues in what I can only describe as swirly ways that are inventive and bring the two closer together. Or maybe I could say curvilinear ways. She recites for him James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” When the man leaves, “[s]tartled starlings flew up out of the high grass. . . .” She is going to take Yancey for another walk.
No one who loves dogs can fail to love this story, and some who don’t love dogs will also love it for the walk it takes us on.
For some pages, “Silent Prayer” is a dialogue between husband and wife. The conversation mimics and mocks how married couples talk while at the same time supplying glimpses of their real feelings and concerns. He is packing to catch a plane. What might have turned into a quarrel is silenced when he tells her he loves her. It’s time for her to feed their cat. “Feeling time,” she says to the cat, misspeaking. She says a silent prayer, hoping to prevent the plane from crashing. She feels “weak in the knees,” as she has done before and will again. We understand that despite their bickering they love each other.
Maybe the pun in “Elvis Is Ahead of Us” is a bit yucky, given that the story is about a cache of Elvis heads discovered in an almost-abandoned, up-for-sale house at the end of a dead-end street. Some kids break in. The narrator’s husband has to fix the lock before the sales agent can show the house to clients. The story threatens to become a horror story, but, happily, the kids are good kids and no harm comes to them, nor do they do any harm to anyone. Nevertheless, these Elvis heads, made by the previous owner, compose a funny/scary image that is hard to turn away from. They come up again later in the book.
“Major Maybe” is one of my favorites. Major Maybe, for whom the story is titled, is a dog. The female narrator, who will become a doctor in Portland, Maine, remembers sharing an apartment with Eagle Soars, a would-be actor, in the neighborhood of Chelsea in New York City in the eighties. A psychologist specializing in adolescents occupies the basement, or “Garden Apartment.” A crazy redhead is also featured. Out of a complex situation, “Major Maybe” finds a perfect last line, simple, vivid, unexpected, but consonant with the story and reverberating with meaning.
Moira, in “Road Movie,” takes a trip to California with a lover named Hughes. They stay at the Nevada Sunset Motel. Hughes is cheating on his longtime girlfriend. Moira’s mother has her own problems and thinks her daughter should not be with Hughes, and some part of Moira agrees. Kunal, who works at the motel, is at the heart of the story; he is charming and considerate. When Moira thanks him for taking care of her and Hughes, who, she admits, is “never going to marry me,” she “kiss[es] Kunal lightly on his forehead” and he “blush[es], though she could see from the sparkle in his eye that it was okay.” It is because of Kunal that we finish the story not with irritation at Moira’s bad choices or with her lover’s self-satisfaction and arrogance but with optimism.
My favorite story of all is “Missed Calls.” Seventy-four-years old, the widow of a celebrated photographer, writer Clair Levinson-Jones receives a written request from one Terry Cavassa to interview her about Truman Capote. More letters ensue, many discussing various visual artists and writers and fashionable people of the day, and eventually Terry arrives in Maine. He is a generation younger than Clair. The conversation between Clair and Terry advances beyond name-dropping (which is both amusing and interesting) to personal stories. Terry concedes that he too is a writer. Clair begins to understand the depth of Terry’s anguish. The story moves from a discussion of art to a discussion of feeling, which is always at the root of art. It’s where the drama is.
But I have, as I knew I would, run out of space.
Ann Beattie’s signature details—her close observation of contemporary manners, speech, culture, and relationships—are as fresh here as they have always been. Her characters are positioned to clarify for us the nature of modern life. That substantial catalogue of books she has so assiduously worked on is still, I’m delighted to say, dynamic and expanding.
About the Reviewer
Kelly Cherry is the author, most recently, of Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories and A Kelly Cherry Reader.