Finding Meaning in Life's Complications


By Ann Beattie

Knopf, 478 pp., $25

Ann Beattie once told an interviewer that she writes about "the complicated things, the things I don't have answers for." In "Park City: New and Selected Stories," a compilation of 36 short stories, including eight that have never been published in book form, those "complicated things" include divorce, infidelity, drug use, AIDS, death, and a lot of quiet sorrow.

Uplifting reading this is not. Some readers might find it difficult to move from one rather bleak tale to the next. But there are some good reasons to read an Ann Beattie story, or 36 of them. They are slices of life that almost never feel false. None of Beattie's characters are perfect - far from it. They stay in relationships that have turned sour. They leave relationships too quickly. They're indecisive. But Beattie never passes judgment on these characters, and she clearly cares for them. "This is how people are," she seems to be saying. "This is how life is."

Written over a 25-year period, many of the stories included in this collection show their age. In "Shifting," a young couple, whose marriage starts to crumble almost as soon as it begins, visits a friend badly wounded in Vietnam. In "Second Question," a man and woman watch their friend die of AIDS.

Throughout her career, Beattie has been known - and hailed - as an insightful chronicler of her generation. But the best stories in "Park City" are those that are timeless.

In "Waiting," a woman's husband leaves on a trip across the country - a trip from which he may not return. Beattie reveals the woman's feelings by describing her familiar relationship with her elderly dog. "Earlier today, in the morning, I ran him in Putnam Park. I could hardly keep up with him, as usual. Thirteen isn't so old, for a dog. Now he is happy, slowly licking his mouth, getting ready to take his afternoon nap."

The woman goes into the living room to offer the dog a bite of cheese. "He knows the word 'cheese.' He knows it as well as his name. No reaction. 'Cheese?' I whisper. 'Hugo?' It is as loud as I can speak."

Fearing the dog might be dead, she walks outside. "I count the times I breathe in and out. When I open my eyes, the sun is shining hard on the blue doors." A friend, Ray, stops by for lunch, and she asks him to go inside for food. "If there's anything in there that isn't the way it ought to be, just take care of it, will you?"

When Ray returns with lunch, Hugo walking slowly at his side, the woman bursts into tears. Seeing this, Ray pushes over close. "Hey," he says. "Everything's cool, okay? No right and no wrong. People do what they do."

While many of Beattie's stories consist entirely of conversations, a few of her most moving pieces contain almost no dialogue at all.

In "In the White Night," a couple whose daughter died years earlier leaves a party in a snowstorm. When they get home, she goes into the bathroom and starts to cry, while he falls asleep on the couch, using his wife's coat as a blanket. Seeing him there, the wife takes her husband's coat from the closet and lies down with it on the floor beneath him.

"Here they were," Beattie writes, "in their own house with four bedrooms, ready to sleep in this peculiar double-decker fashion, in the largest, coldest room of all. What would anyone think? She knew the answer to that question, of course. A person who didn't know them would mistake this for a drunken collapse, but anyone who was a friend would understand exactly."

Beattie has been accused of being deliberately downbeat, and certainly there is evidence of that here. Several of the more depressing stories may make readers ask, "What's the point?" The best of this collection, however, will likely elicit an entirely different response: "I understand exactly."

* Suzanne MacLachlan is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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