People whom trouble always seems to find and introspective victims of fractured relationships are the featured players in Beattie’s strong seventh collection—published in the immediate wake of the Pen/Bernard Malamud Prize awarded to her this month.
Oddly, though, the strongest impression made by these 11 consummately wrought tales is their essential similarity to the wide-ranging, dialogue-crammed stories of John O’Hara’s later years. Beattie knows the suburban, artsy-craftsy, vaguely politically liberal, emotionally booby-trapped milieux her articulate characters inhabit as well as anyone now writing. She’s a master at presenting affectless characters who take on credibility and interest from their social and familial contexts—like the sheepish, well-meaning male protagonists of “Hurricane Carleyville” and (the superb) “In Irons,” both men who can’t stay with the women they fascinate and eventually disappoint, or the infertile wife of “Coydog,” who learns during a holiday family reunion (a situation Beattie employs repeatedly) all the secrets held by her elusive husband’s kin, despite their ritual assurances “that things almost always turned out for the best.” Melodramatic plot elements are also common factors. “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim,” a savvy study of a celebrated chef and his male assistant anticipating a presidential visit, climaxes with an incident that deftly reverses the story’s wry comic tone. “The Women of This World” finds a shocking, well-placed metaphor for its compact presentation of women victimized by emotionally distant men. Elsewhere, vivid glimpses of incompatibility, infidelity, and separation are unerringly juxtaposed against seemingly neutral images of contemporary faddishness and pretension (“We went to a party, . . . Gianni Versace was there, but he was peeing the whole time”). There are a few misfires (notably, “Cat People” and “See the Pyramids”), but most of these pieces dig deeper, and resonate more powerfully, than even Beattie’s most celebrated earlier fiction—and the title story, another ingenious portrayal of a bizarre extended family, may be the best she has yet written.
Beattie strikes more nerves than a ham-fisted dental technician. Exceptionally interesting work.