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The Accomplished Guest: Stories

Review

The Accomplished Guest: Stories

Ten years separated THE STATE WE'RE IN: Maine Stories, Ann Beattie's last collection of short stories, from its predecessor, so it's a bit surprising that less than two years later she has produced another volume of short fiction. While THE ACCOMPLISHED GUEST (its title drawn from an Emily Dickinson poem) isn't likely to win her a large new following, readers with an affinity for Beattie's coolly served-up slices of life will have their appetites satisfied.

Though several of these stories are set in Maine, Beattie broadens her geographic scope somewhat to include New York City, Key West and a couple of other Eastern seaboard stops. Most of her characters seem to be situated solidly in the educated middle class or a bit above, and though Beattie doesn't evince much interest in the world of work, jobs that are representative of the knowledge economy predominate.

A typical story begins with the brief introduction of a flurry of characters and then shifts to the point of view of a single one like John, the protagonist of "The Astonished Woodchopper,” who had "pretty much made a mess of his life, even if he had made good money." His melancholy musings in the aftermath of prostate cancer echo the somber reflections of Gerald Clavell, the retired New York stockbroker (and part-time luxury products model) of "For the Best," who's startled to learn that the ex-wife he hasn't seen in 31 years has been invited to a mutual friend's Christmas party on what turns out to be the day of the San Bernardino massacre.

"[R]eaders with an affinity for Beattie's coolly served-up slices of life will have their appetites satisfied."

Similarly, in "Company," college professor Henry Siddis, in his early 60s, begins to obsess about death while transporting a bag of lobsters home for a dinner he and his wife are hosting for a former student fresh from his surprise wedding. Beattie's characters are smart, sophisticated and often tartly witty, but those traits serve more to distance them than to foster a feeling of identification.

So in a collection that's notably lacking in onstage drama, a story like "The Debt" stands out. In it, three middle-aged college friends from the University of Virginia travel to Key West to demonstrate their displeasure with a fourth friend who's reneged on a loan. There's a death by drowning, an impulsive marriage to a teenage prostitute from Moldova, and even a portion of the story told from the point of view of a dog, elements that give the story a feel of a more ornate version of an Elmore Leonard tale.

Beattie does display flashes of humor in stories like "The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card." Pru, the protagonist, finds herself agreeing to turn over her house for an Avon party to a woman named Allison, who "had this awakening experience, so she's going to ask you to call her Bonobo." Pru herself soon discovers that the "potential for inventing a whole new self is beginning to interest me." Beattie also scores with some acid-tinged observations, like Gerald Clavell's, who "counted his four cousins as friends, since he was not close enough to any of them to consider them family," or another character's ex-girlfriend who "had become adamant about a wedding ring and a baby, though not necessarily in that order." But the parties and other celebrations that recur in these stories seldom are occasions of real mirth, as in the disastrous one in "The Caterer" that's thrown to celebrate the sentencing of Bernie Madoff.

"Save a Horse, Ride a Cowgirl," which concludes the collection, captures the aftertaste that lingers after reading most of these stories. Bradley, a lawyer from Maine who's mourning the death of his wife (killed as a result of a hospital's negligence), spends his evenings spying through a telescope on the house where he and his late wife used to live. He sees a couple dancing and imagines that the woman might even be the ghost of his late wife. In most of Beattie's stories, we feel as if we're similarly observing the lives of her characters from a distance, intrigued perhaps by her well-crafted creations, but lacking enough of an emotional connection to be fully invested in them or their problems.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 16, 2017

The Accomplished Guest: Stories
by Ann Beattie

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501111388
  • ISBN-13: 9781501111389