Ann Beattie Returns With New Collection of Compelling Short Stories

Lee Polevoi

 

The State We’re In: Maine Stories

By Ann Beattie

Scribner

206 pages

 

 

2015 has been a banner year for practitioners of the short story. We’ve seen new collections from giants of the form, like Joy Williams, David Gates, Adam Johnson, Elizabeth Tallent and Thomas McGuane. Anthony Marra, Colin Barrett and Mia Alvar have produced notable debuts.

 

Ann Beattie, secure within this elite pantheon, returns after a decade’s absence with a new book, The State We’re In: Maine Stories. Those familiar with her work will immediately recognize the wry perspective, the closely observed details, and the smooth texture of her prose.

 

As the title announces, these stories revolve, directly and indirectly, around people living in the Pine Tree State. They purr along at a low-key emotional register, with occasional breaks for near-psychotic episodes and loud lovers’ quarrels.

 

“Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” one of three interlocking stories about a  girl named Jocelyn, is among the best in the collection. Jocelyn, 17, has been shipped there from Massachusetts to stay for the summer with high-strung Aunt Bettina and down-to-earth Uncle Raleigh. “Endless Rain” shows Beattie off at her best—moving effortlessly between points of view, while combining brisk, dead-on dialogue with Jocelyn’s clear-eyed and stubbornly adolescent take on life:

 

“[Raleigh had] been as mystified as the next guy by women when he was young and dating, but now he seemed to think the mere sight of one was as lovely as seeing the first robin of spring. As far as she knew, he’d never strayed in his marriage to Bettina, but who ever knew about such things when few birds and even fewer people mated for life.”

 

 

“Road Movie,” an equally impressive story, takes place in and around the Nevada Sunset Motel in California. Moira is staying there with Hughes, a man who’s cheating on his girlfriend. After a contentious few days together, she wonders if she’ll someday become “one of those stereotypes, the amoral woman who does whatever she wants, but who never gets what she wants, because she doesn’t even know what that would be?”

 

Some stories read like moments snatched out of life, rather than perfectly polished short fiction, but tug at the heart nonetheless.

 

“Silent Prayer,” for example, recounts a prickly exchange between husband and wife, just before he leaves for a business trip. Old arguments and recriminations suggest a marriage at the end of its tether, until after the husband leaves the house: “Please let the plane not crash, she thought, going weak in the knees. This was a habitual thought. More or less like prayer.”

 

“Major Maybe” harkens back to New York City, c. 1980, and memories of a bohemian life in Chelsea (“more of a mom-and-pop neighborhood. No art galleries, just a few sex clubs way west.”). Another story, “Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown,” offers richly painted character descriptions, but seems to stop before it gets started.

 

A strain of sadness permeates these stories as well. In “Adirondack Chairs,” a heart-wrenching piece about summer, love and death, the narrator recollects in tranquility:  

 

“Who hasn’t been twenty-one? Who hasn’t sat outdoors on a summer night and known—known without questioning it—that through the impenetrable black sky, someone or something is looking down at you? The stars just glitter to draw your attention.”

 

The impeccably crafted stories of The State We’re In glitter and hold our attention throughout.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is completing a new novel.

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