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The accomplished Ann Beattie

FICTION

The Accomplished Guest: Stories

By Ann Beattie

Scribner

270 pages, $25

One is tempted, when reading the sublime Ann Beattie, to do so in one fell swoop.

Her stories are that delectable, that easy – at first pass. But it is best to slow down, to savor their cadence, their quirkiness (and trademark humor) before realizing that every single one of them opens onto a fathomless deep.

Beattie’s latest collection, “The Accomplished Guest,” is an excellent case in point, giving us 13 shrewd and unconventional tales of the recent past, almost all of them peopled by thinking individuals of a certain age suddenly aware not only of their mortality but of a world beginning to pass them by.

In the story “Company,” a longtime professor and his wife invite former students to a meal, the professor mulling as they approach:

“You are coming to see a dead man. You will find him upright and talkative. You will embrace him without hesitation. … You will go on to do whatever you do with your lives, with a 50 percent chance of divorce. Thirty years from now, when you, too, are old, something sniffed for a second in the breeze will take you back to this moment … and the sight of your dead teacher in his doorway … the memory will not so much evaporate as flick some little particle into your eye, which will make you wince. That feeling, conventionally called pain, will take you elsewhere … will be the exit ramp or the detour or the alternate route to the rest of your lives, which will also continue to be interrupted by divorce, appendicitis, mice in your basement, and random persecution by the IRS because of your political beliefs.”

This tale is set in Maine – site of many a Beattie story – but “The Accomplished Guest” also travels down the East Coast, through the rest of New England, also stopping in Virginia, the District of Columbia, New York and Key West. Tale by tale, we are taken into kitchens and bedrooms, over back roads and down to the water, always for an occasion or meaningful interlude in Beattie’s characters’ lives.

And often, in the background, we hear the drumbeat of current events. In one story, George W. Bush is president; in another, it’s Barack Obama – and, in still another, a caterer named Janet is called upon to provide the sustenance for a Bernie Madoff sentencing-day party.

Her client is “the second wife of some stockbroker disgraced by the SEC, now in ‘early retirement.’ ” Both have had extensive plastic surgery but, according to Janet, “he was the difficult one; she was only neurotic. He thought Costco frozen appetizers cooked and smothered in expensive and recognizable Stonewall Kitchen sauces were perfectly fine. He put out bottles of homemade selzer because ‘everyone wanted to cut down on drinking.’ ”

This is how Beattie lulls us, makes us voyeurs at an impending party without warning us that the husband will suddenly go into near-cardiac arrest, paramedics will be called, the party in doubt and Janet not only thinking guiltily that this was “hardly a circumstance in which she could ask the client to pay the bill,” but also finding herself, alone and away from the chaos, slipping on one of her client’s “soft leather ankle-high black boots.”

Suddenly we are reading quite another story – and there will be a second, even more startling twist, before “The Caterer” is done. So too with “The Debt” in which three male friends (Dick, Royal and Kegan) reunite, after 30 years, in the Florida Keys, engaging in the banter of their youth, going to strip clubs and, in a cruel act of revenge for a debt reneged on decades ago, working over, berating and leaving a man named Reynolds tied up in his home on Catholic Lane.

“This was,” writes Beattie, “two nights before Yuliana, the Moldolvan girl Royal picked up after a  private lap dance on Truman Avenue, got the best Christmas present she ever received, which also fit her finger perfectly, two nights before Kegan took off on his own and, as they’d later learn, put down one ice-cold Stoli shot after another, served by a bartender in an elf costume at a beach bar, from which he was ejected when he commented on the elf’s cleavage, after which he apparently wandered down to Dick Dock, stepped out of his Bermuda shorts, Lacoste shirt, and Tevas, and dove into the Atlantic. Three Japanese tourists came upon his body at dawn.”

Beattie makes of us co-conspirators, taking us deep into the psyches of a whole panoply of characters via the smaller, and often hilarious, details of their lives before tipping story upon story over with a surprise event, or realization. In “Anecdotes,” a young woman named Anna has brought her friend Christine’s 60-something mother, Lucia, to a lecture by Christine on the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White:

“Lucia … had not wanted Christine to be a model, but neither had she wanted her to be in the academic world, which Lucia felt was full of pseudo-intellectuals hiding from society."

Lucia herself, she confides in Anna, has recently embarked upon a lesbian relationship. She is embracing a whole new life. And we instantly perceive that Anna, many years younger, is already retreating from life.

In “Other People’s Birthdays,” a young woman with the male name of Lawrence flies home for her older sister’s 43rd birthday and sees, perhaps clearly for the first time, just how mentally ill her sister, Bett, is – and how much her parents’ lives are entwined with Bett’s, with little room for Lawrence.

“The Astonished Woodchopper” gives us John and Jen, man and wife, on their way to John’s brother’s unexpected wedding – where the interaction will turn childish, then violent, John eying Jen at one point and thinking in metaphor:

“Ah, his dear wife had ventured out onto the first crossing stone, stepped onto the erratic path that passed through the river of life’s confusion.”

Alas, in Beattie’s brilliant “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card,” she is not kind to Buffalo – one character saying of our city, “Imagine having to start over, with your kid, in some really cold place.” Versions of all of the stories here were previously published in periodicals such as Granta, The American Scholar and Paris Review. Two appeared in The New Yorker – “For the Best” (in which Gerald, divorced from Charlotte for 31 years, encounters her, drunk, after a Christmas party they were both invited to) and “Save a Horse Ride a Cowgirl” (wherein a grieving widower sees his heretofore reclusive neighbor dancing down the middle of their street with a young woman with “long bleached-blond hair”).

Other madcap story titles here include “Hoodie in Xanadu” – which ends gloriously, with its narrator concluding:

“You miss out on life for years and years, and then you meet the guy across the street who thinks you’re a genius … it was clear that even though this was the last thing I expected, it was the way things did conclude for two citizens of Planet Earth, and in spite of all the odds, I had a partner. I had a partner on a night when foxes sang and danced in the moonlight, and the old people sat and stared.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.

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