Often labeled the spokeswoman of the yuppie generation of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Ann Beattie has been alternately praised for her satiric view of that era’s notorious passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated, New Yorker-magazine versions of characters unable to understand themselves and unwilling to understand others. In the collection Follies, Beattie departs from her so-called minimalism and plays with a variety of literary parodies and comic voices. Instead of being tight-lipped, she is downright voluble. Instead of writing in an impassive monotone, she skips about her characters with self-conscious authorial glee. For the first time, she seems to be having a good time in her writing.
The longest story in the book, taking up over one-third of it, is the novella Fléchette Follies. The title is a sly joke about the tone and structure of the novella itself, for “flechette” is a type of ammunition used in cluster bombs and “follies” is a kind of slapstick comic romp; both terms describe the narrative style of the story very well. The main characters are a man named George Wissone, who gets in a minor traffic accident one morning with a woman named Nancy Gregerson in Charlottesville, Virginia (where Beattie is an English professor at the University of Virginia). Because Gregerson is worried about her son, Nick, who has disappeared in Londona victim, she supposes, of drug traffic and street lifeshe is curt and rude to Wissone, accusing him of having too much to drink. Later, she regrets her behavior, and when she runs into him at a coffee shop, she apologizes and they have a chat.
Puzzled by his reluctance to talk about his own life, she jokes that he is probably a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative and asks if he would go to London and try to find her son. As it turns outin true follies, almost slapstick, fashionWissone is indeed a CIA agent; furthermore, as he is not involved in a serious assignment at the time, he is quite happy to search for Gregerson’s son, not because he is attracted to Gregerson or eager to do a good turn for her but merely because he wants to see if he can be a responsive human being, willing to do someone a favor when the goal is not money, sex, or danger. He wants to do something he thinks a normal person with a normal life would do.
However, again in true follies fashion, Wissone’s task is anything but normal, and Beattie’s story is anything but realistic or minimalistic. When Wissone gets to England, he makes inquiries, and then abruptly, as if Beattie has no other purpose than to get him out of the way so she can hurry on to the end of the story, George Wissone steps out into the street and is run down by a cab hurriedly taking a pregnant woman to a doctor’s appointment. He dies immediately, trapped under the cab. The remainder of the novella deals with Wissone’s best friend and colleague trying to find out what happened to him, pursuing an investigation that includes an annoying interview with Nancy Gregerson, who finally orders him and his wife out of her house. Fléchette Follies is a curious piece of heavily plotted work for the previously laconic Beattie. Although it is a pleasure to read because of the author’s clever narrative style, it is mostly a bit of writerly fun, a playful parody combining light comedy and intrigue.
The collection’s other long story, “That Last Odd Day in L.A.,” is more like some of Beattie’s previous short pieces, for it focuses on one of her baby boomer characters now grown older. The protagonist has made a lot of money by investing early in Microsoft; now he is divorced and dating a woman, but the relationship is desultory at best. He recalls a day in Los Angeles when he rescued a baby possum from a swimming pool and seemed to receive a benediction or blessing from a deer. The story ends when the son of the woman he is dating shoots him, and he winds up in the emergency room, where he has an epiphany of sorts about how he has undermined his past relationships with his wife and his children.
In the contributors’ notes to the 2002 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, Beattie says “That Last Odd Day in L.A.” began when, enduring cold weather in Rome, she tried to think of warmer places and Los Angeles came to mind. Like Fléchette Follies, the...
(The entire section is 1787 words.)