Phew. Last summer was a mess. Everywhere you looked, someone was splitting up or fighting. Children seemed to have turned out badly, and uttered shocking obscenities. People forced each other to face various stark realities, and if they tried evasively to look out the window, people were fighting in the street. It was too hot, and there was a shooting.
At least this was last summer, as pictured in "Falling in Place," a new novel by Ann Beattie. The author insists on last summer as the time. She's always mentioning that Blondie is singing "Heart of Glass" on the radio, and her characters keep remarking that Skylab is falling. The events of the novel are discomforting, all the more so because you can't just shrug it all off as happening once upon a time. This was the summer of '79, she seems to be saying again and again; you might as well face it.
Split-ups, misunderstandings, and estrangements jangle in sharper fragments because they are told by many different voices. We hear the teen-age derision of Mary Knapp, and then the listless complaints of her summer school teacher, Cynthia Forrest (whom she calls "Lost in the Forest" and who really feels lost, confronted by Mary's seeming illiteracy). We get in on the musings of two fat 12-year-old boys, and the confabulations of Louise Knapp, Mary's mother, and her stridently "conscious" friend Tiffy. You might wonder wildly where Ann Beattie is taking you, especially at first, when the book is like a terrifying taxi ride , bolting along among the misfortues of a gang of strangers with no apparent objective in view.
The book is rich in detail. (Maybe it's all detail.) The flutter of faces and voices gives the book a wonderful energy. You don't get confused. Rather, you fall in with the pace, or you feel tugged along by each new clamoring voice, each seeming to say more urgently than the last, "Yeah, but you know what happened to me?!"
No one is a central character. This is a group portrait, and a straggly one at that. But we keep coming back to John Knapp. He is in love with Nina in New York, married to Louise in New Haven, and lives with his mother and youngest son in Rye. He spends much of his time driving around among them and to the ad agency to work every day, feeling guilty and confused.
His love for Nina is immense and tender, but Beattie doesn't give us much else to approve of. After a family tragedy, he drives his wife home from the hospital and then drives to Nina's apartment. He can't even remember if he said goodbye. He is desperately in love in the scrabbling, human, sense of desperate , not the romantic, noble sense. He is only a quasi hero.
John teeters on many edges, and the suspense builds up. The family is about to split. He is on the verge of being happy with Nina, yet she might decide to give up and wander away. Voices pipe up from all corners, giving you the plot in bits, like gossip. You keep reading, yearning with John for some real connection. All that holds the book together (and maybe "together" is an overstatement) is John's hope of happiness.
Beattie didn't so much structure a novel as lay pieces of stories next to each other. But for all her offhand style, presenting you with non sequiturs and refusing to comment, you get a feeling Beattie takes everyone to heart. Or why would she tell you about John's favorite photograph of Nina, taken in a seafood restaurant when she was a child, wearing a sailor hat and somehow looking beatific? Or that Cynthia was once knocked over by an African Pygmy goat while throwing a Frisbee in a park in Berkeley?
While you hurtle through this maze of relationships looking for happiness or something, you care, too. Even if none of the details are clues, you take them just as seriously. And Beattie keeps you wondering till the end of the book whether everything is falling in place or just falling. It's a thriller about everyday life, and I won't tell you what happens. It would spoil the ride.