Ann Beattie lives part-time in Key West, part-time Maine and full-time in the short story. She was not yet 30 when she began publishing and has been a virtuoso of the tricky form for close to 40 years. By the looks of her 10th collection, The State We’re In: Maine Stories, she’s still going strong. The 15 stories range in length and substance but all are Beattie-spare, slyly funny, still exhibiting the author’s nonlinear narrative style and unique gift of reflecting our inner angst with our surroundings.
Most but not all of the stories are set in Maine, but we are far from the state’s majestic scenery and bucolic summer camps. Instead, Beattie, whose numerous accolades include the PEN/Malamud Prize for the Short Story, plops you down in one of those ubiquitous Adirondack chairs. “Those things ruined women’s stockings and made you spill your drink; you had to sit in them awkwardly, pretending that your casual moment was also comfortable, that you’d adapted easily to their too-deep seats and were having fun.”
Fun and comfort are in short supply for these characters, starting with the first story, What Magic Realism Would Be. Teenage Jocelyn has been farmed out to her Uncle Raleigh and Aunt Bettina for the summer while her mother recuperates from surgery. With a few deft strokes and not a little humor, Beattie paints the nuances within this thrown-together family, their polite but strained exchanges, the weight of the unsaid.
Jocelyn sullenly attends summer school or rattles around her uncle’s home in unfamiliar York, Maine, where “the water was totally too cold to swim in . . . where summer brides who were way too old to get married came out onto the lawn and stuff blew all around them.”
Here and in the other stories, characters silently take the measure of each other and struggle to connect. Often, they fail. They succeed sometimes, as the narrator and an IRS agent do in Yancey in unexpected and oddly touching ways. Everyone, as a character in Road Movie says, is “neither here nor there.”
Though not quite linked, the stories read all of a piece, united by humor — Beattie’s — and by menace or sadness, both amply supplied by life. Amid the mundane, “there was always the danger. . . ” In Adirondack Chairs, a man doing gardening is attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets. “[H]e died. He was a freak, though.”
Characters are caught in a rain of broken bottles when they just want to order a pizza. They go to school, to work, to the doctor’s office even as they struggle with substance abuse, elder abuse, spouse abuse. They leave a spouse for “a transgender person. . . You don’t think things like this happen in woodsy Maine?”
In The Stroke, among the collection’s warmest stories, an unnamed older couple banter back and forth before bed, the ease and affection between them keenly portrayed, keenly felt. “You have divinely dimpled thighs.” “I have a major cellulite problem.” But even their tender bedtime ritual hints at a smoothing over of something unspoken, snarled and dark.
The author doesn’t dwell on the danger or hurt, nor does she try to ferret out meaning. She alludes to it only in passing, as though viewing human behavior, as perplexing as it is, from a great height. “It’s never clear, except perhaps to that great GPS programmer in the sky,” observes the narrator in Duff’s Done Enough.
Each story opens with a zinger, and not all achieve lift-off. One of the most promising, The Little Hutchinsons, fizzles despite its folksy tone evoking Eudora Welty, as though the author lost interest.
Happily, Beattie didn’t lose interest in Jocelyn, who reappears in two more stories along with her prickly Aunt Bettina and kind but mysterious Uncle Raleigh, who can’t talk about his work because it requires security clearance. The book’s energy surges whenever they reappear in a way that makes you wish Beattie would devote an entire novella to them.
A sense of discomfort pervades The State We’re In, but thanks to the Beattie’s trademark sleek prose and perfectly calibrated authorial distance, it makes for weirdly entertaining reading. Only Beattie can see an upended Adirondack chair as giving “the finger to the very symbol of summer.”
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.