Review by Sylvia Brownrigg
San Francisco Chronicle
Like huge advances and rooftop launch parties overflowing with Champagne, minimalism is not the literary commonplace it was in the 1980s. Writers such as Raymond Carver or Bobbie Ann Mason aren't sovereign as they once were. Many of today's bright young things write long, maximal works - confident perhaps that e-readers will render their works as light as a Kindle.
Ann Beattie, unlike Carver, allowed herself to evolve in recent decades while his untimely death preserved him in a kind of stylistic formaldehyde. Her spare, ironic voice defined a 1980s story type, but with some of her longer and more developed stories, Beattie no longer seems like the quintessential New Yorker author. She often appears in jazzy newer venues such as Narrative and Tin House - to her own benefit as well as theirs.
Beattie's new book, Walks With Men, is nonetheless a slip of a thing. With its taut telling of an ill-advised, frequently inexplicable romance and its abrupt, mysterious conclusion, it shares qualities with some of Beattie's iconic short stories. This includessetting the story in Manhattan in the early 1980s. Yet this novella is a deceptively complex work, one that touches on the intricate strangeness of friendship and marriage, and of life in that indulgent period.
Jane is 21 when she meets Neil, a Barnard English professor in his 40s. A relationship that begins as a kind of bargain - he promises to help this young woman understand men - turns into an affair, later into a marriage and finally into a memory. The couple splits in an odd and dramatic way, leaving crucial questions not only unanswered, but unanswerable.
One reads this short cautionary tale to find out what happened between Jane and Neil (the story is narrated by Jane from a distance of many years), but the reader gradually accepts that the greater richness is in the textures and sounds that surround the misbegotten couple. Beattie has a brilliant ear for the elliptical way people speak, especially when they are failing to read each other.
Walks With Men
By Ann Beattie
Scribner, 102 pages, $17 hardcover, $10 paperback