The Accomplished Guest
nolead begins By Ann Beattie
Scribner. 270 pp. $26 nolead ends
With The Accomplished Guest, Ann Beattie yet again reveals herself as one of literature's most liberating figures. In her new collection of 13 stories, the indignities of aging, friends reuniting, loneliness, and travel are common threads. With shrewd empathy and a fine ear for dialogue, Beattie sounds the grace notes, and the fall-from-grace notes, of her characters' lives.
She especially savors the abject drama of weddings and birthdays. In "The Astonished Woodchopper," she combines discordant family history with slapstick conversation to capture the cacophonic exhaustion of a wedding.
A favorite of mine in this stellar collection, "The Indian Uprising," begins when the narrator, Maude, is invited by her former poetry professor, Franklin, to celebrate his 71st birthday in Washington. Maude takes the train from Charlottesville, and they go to a Mexican restaurant, where her ex-husband walks in with a beautiful woman.
Soon enough, things fall apart. Maude drops her napkin, bends to pick it up, and notices a stain on her teacher's sock:
"Had he stepped in something on the way to the restaurant, or was it, as I feared, blood? I waited until the nice waiter wasn't looking and pushed back the tablecloth enough to peek. The stain was bright red, on the foot with the unfastened Velcro."
From coming unhinged at the sight of her ex, too much wine, and perhaps the shock of witnessing signs of Franklin's mortality, Maude faints. Franklin is taken by ambulance to the hospital. Maude had earlier been informed of his rickety heart and diabetes, making this dinner set-piece all the more affecting, precisely because Maude must've realized she was dining with a beloved figure not long for this world.
Later, Maude wistfully reports, "Then winter ended and spring came, and I thought, 'Even if I don't believe there's a poem in anything anymore, maybe I'll write a story.' A lot of people do that when they can't seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know." This passage feels as though Maude has chosen to continue, ad infinitum, the conversation about life and literature with her old professor.
When I read Beattie's stories, I think of Chekhov's; when I read Chekhov, I think of Beattie. Both are writers for the ages.