Fresh from the success of her new and collected stories Park City (1998), Ann Beattie offers upPerfect Recall (2001), a collection of eleven stories, all set in the present, but using the 1960’s and 1970’s as a mythological buttress which many of the characters reference. The stories mark something of a departure from Beattie’s earlier stories and novels that offer authentic glimpses into the ambiguity of contemporary relationships. Though some of her earlier skill shows through in stories such as “Mermaids” and the title story “Perfect Recall,” this collection is flawed by Beattie’s use of obvious plot devices and transparent characterization, which forces the reader to rigid and largely predictable conclusions. Furthermore, Beattie’s talent for depicting her cultural milieu with accuracy often sinks into baby-boomer nostalgia in some of these stories. One thematic thread that runs through most of the works, the culture of male friendships, adds a different dimension to the book, but does not form enough of a cohesive thread to keep the collection together.
The first story in the collection, “Hurricane Carleyville,” illustrates Beattie’s reliance on simplistic characterization and forced resolution. The story chronicles the protagonist Carleyville’s passage from somewhere in the Midwest to the home of friends Jimmy and Fiona in Maine. He travels with a dog, a cat, and an older horse that he pulls in a rickety horse trailer. He is not feeling well. He hits his hand. His truck battery dies. In essence, this man is an emotional and physical mess. When he arrives at his friends’ home, they are preparing for a hurricane which threatens the coast. In the process of helping his friends, he lures the husband into a hurricane-turbulent river for a swim, and cuts his arm, requiring thirty-eight stitches. The reader does not have to look far to see that the main character is something of a hurricane himself. Then, in the final pages of the story, Fiona makes the comparison even more explicit when she tells him, “We ought to send yououtside and let the damned hurricane in.” This announcement of the symbol detracts from the reading of the story. Instead of being a fully developed character, Carleyville becomes a collection of Dickensian mannerisms that announce the story’s “moral” before the story has concluded. This same problem plagues other stories in this collection, sometimes making the point of the work too obvious.
Another story that uses the same problematic technique is “Coydog.” Here, Beattie adopts an almost Anne Tyler-like method of sketching a dysfunctional family in a moment of crisis. This eccentric family consists of a number of loveable hangers-on and a matriarch who demands that the family get together for holidays before their actual date so that no one will be injured traveling to the family home. The yard is scattered with wooden cutouts of animals carved by a family friend. Fran, the protagonist of the story, resists attending these gatherings. As the outsider who married into the family, she tries to convince her husband Hank that they should not attend. She seems to have particular differences with his sister, “Dreamy Dora.” At this family gathering, Fran makes a negative comment to Dora and she responds rather inappropriately by telling the family that her parents forced her to have an abortion as a young girl and refused to let her marry the man she loved. Later, the family watches a coydog—a crossbreed of coyote and dog—nuzzle the wooden animals in the yard as if they were real and he belonged there with them. As the story ends, Beattie brings the reader to a time several years in the future. It is revealed that Fran and her husband stayed together only four years after this incident. No one recalls Fran’s comments or Dora’s outburst, only that a coydog believed the wooden animals were real. Just as in “Hurricane Carleyville,” Beattie makes the title and the message of this piece too obvious. Fran feels like an outsider and tries to join a family. The coydog tries to befriend the animals, but they are wooden. Fran tries to feel comfortable with the family, but they are not what they seem. Beattie ends the story with an obvious coda: “I remember the day the poor lonesome coydog got a broken heart when it went and fell in love with animals not quite its kind.”
When Beattie’s stories are not delivering obvious endings, they often deflect the reader from understanding where to focus in the story. This pattern is particularly true of the longest story in the collection, “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim.” The narrator, Richard Manson, works as a secretary for a famous chef named Lowell Cartwright. Because...
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