Ann Beattie’s “Walks With Men”

Ann Beattie first hit the publishing scene in the 1970s. She became a successful player in the rage of minimalist fiction that continued into the 1980s, but her cropped style regarding emotional depth put me off.  I admire understatement, but this went too far for my tastes. So at the time when minimalist short-story writers were being acclaimed, I was delving into their “classic” opposites, reading the stories of John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, William Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen. In other words, I missed the Beattie boat. 

November 2010, Beattie’s stories from The New Yorker will be published together in a collection.  It’s a chance for me to catch up on what I missed from the ’70s and ’80s and — with most of her great writing achieved during that time — give Beattie another chance after reading the disappointing Walks With Men.

Beattie’s new, small book published this summer — a novella of 102 pages — tells a common story about a smart but uncertain girl (Jane) in her 20s getting involved with a worldly, older man (Neil) who’s a jerk. Jane is an Ivy League graduate seduced by Neil’s siren song about teaching her things she will not otherwise know.  (“In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.”) The majority of Neil’s teachings, though, are ludicrous, especially considering he’s a Barnard professor and an advice columnist for a women’s magazine: “Using an exclamation point for punctuation was interchangeable with eating food and drooling,” or “Wear only rain coats made in England.” They teach, if anything, arrogance.

Nevertheless, Jane settles in with Neil on the fourth floor of a Chelsea brownstone. When she  discovers he is married, she attempts but fails at leaving him, showing up at his door late one night after the break-up. In a drunken rush to go find him, she throws a raincoat over her nightgown, jumps into a pair of high heels and throws herself into his arms  in a scene that’s so typical it’s cringe-worthy. Fortunately, most scenes are more creative and smart, including when Neil’s wife surprises Jane with her existence.

Neil and Jane’s relationship of eventual marriage, cautious cohabitation and weird dissolve is more confusing than enlightening. The early work of Raymond Carver aside,  I’m tempted to say minimalism isn’t for me, except  it’s not the style that’s nagging me: Walks With Men doesn’t pull together into a sharply focused pop of a small story, and it leaves a vague “so what” aftertaste.