Review: Walks with Men, by Ann Beattie
Review by Kate Petersen
I heard Ann Beattie read once, years ago, at the New York State Summer Writers Institute in Saratoga Springs. I was new to writing as craft, and to the short story, and what stories I knew had sky in them.
Suddenly, I was hearing about a city I'd only passed through, and the writers that stepped to the podium depicted certain corners of New York and its inhabitants with astonishing precision, as one might remove bones from a fish and arrange them on a dark cloth.
Beattie's latest work - the novella Walks With Men - sets its lens at that same close and skyless angle to the city, a familiar, unromanticized view of Manhattan that has served as a source of myopia for her characters before: "Sailors know to train their eyes on the horizon to avoid seasickness. When you're landlocked in New York City, look at the farthest curb, which, in its own way, is the horizon line."
It is 1980 and the narrator, Jane Jay Costner, is a young writer and a self-proclaimed "overnight sensation" who comes into quick fame after an interview with the New York Times in which she criticizes her Ivy education. When she meets Neil, the older professor assigned to respond to her in the Times, he promises to teach her some things--"he'd tell me anything, anything, as long as the information went unattributed."
Costner accepts the deal and the affair that follows. Already, Beattie has created a very small world, which contracts further as Jane moves in and marries Neil, then survives him. Despite her credentials, there is very little structure to Jane's days, and she seems for much of the story to be bored, or at least without direction. Readers who prefer books with GPS-worthy movement may find themselves in a similar mood. But what about the Walks? one asks. To which I say: sometimes they go to the diner down the street.
If the space circumscribed by the story is made smaller by this ennui and Jane's ready absorption into Neil's life, it is equally bounded by vanity. Jane reminds the reader regularly why they might have heard of her--her academy-award winning screenplay, her novel made into a movie (as Beattie's own was), perhaps--but probably not--that first callow Times interview.
Yet as a narrator, Jane preempts our judgment over and over, in little postscripts that ask us to recalculate the value of what just happened:
You see through this; understand I was too naïve, even if you factor in that I was young...I didn't introspect; I didn't ask enough questions...If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people. (13)
In fact, Walks with Men can be read as a study of the triangle between self-consciousness, self-awareness and self-centeredness, and Jane rattles between these three points, never lighting fully in one corner. Listening to Chet Baker on the radio, she finds herself "wondering how someone with so little talent, so clearly only seductive, could have become so famous." This is Beattie's game.
One of the joys of reading Beattie is that she builds so many layers without disrupting the surface. The bouquet of flashlights Neil teaches her to keep by the bed is a beautiful object, without any symbolic assignation. But as a writer, Beattie permits her narrator to lay down arrows elsewhere, as she does in this lovely recitative:
Blood oranges (And also the novel, by John Hawkes.)
Rain. (And also the poem, by Robert Creeley.)
"Stella!" (And also the Italian cookies: crumbly Stella D'oro).
Unafraid to invoke art, she lays down the whole narrative of Jane's relationship with Neil and his disappearance in these three lines (from Creeley's poem: What am I to myself/that must be remembered,/insisted upon/so often?) As a form, the novella allows Beattie to work with the same lyric range of motion she has mastered in her short stories.
But this novella, perhaps paradoxically, departs from Beattie's earlier stories in its thinness. Though her stories are frequently driven by their characters' heaping interior struggles--and Walks With Men is no exception--earlier collections like The Burning House and Perfect Recall have richer casts, scenes, and entanglements. There are horse trailers in them, and wild animals, and river-swimming. Often we are introduced to five characters on the first page. Read against those, Walks feels a bit like listening to an accomplished pianist rehearsing one hand at a time.
But it's Beattie, and so one takes even this as a choice, one made for effect, or structural irony. "Italics provide a wonderful advantage: you see, right away, that the words are in a rush," Jane explains in the first pages. "When something exists at a slant, you can't help but consider irony." And such soft-pedal irony is perhaps the persisting pleasure of reading Beattie's work--like realizing someone has been trying to catch your eye across the room, the reader begins, after every confession and exit, to notice the author, leaning against the white space, biting her lip, trying not to smile.
KATE PETERSEN, a current MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota, writes for PostScript and Health Policy Hub. Her writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, Brevity, and Best of the Web 2009.