The people in the stories in Where You’ll Find Me are similar to those in Ann Beattie’s three previous short-story collections—Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), and The Burning House (1982)—and her three novels—Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), Falling in Place (1980), and Love Always (1985). Now they are older, for the most part, and more concerned with making their lives mean something—it almost does not matter what—before their chance has passed. They have the awareness of life’s ironies, its potential for disaster, disappointment, and stagnation, that marked Beattie’s earlier characters, but they are less concerned with noting those pitfalls than with finding ways to move beyond or around them.
The cover illustration of a wraithlike figure floating through a blue and lavender night sky suggests that the collection will explore the illusory nature of human experience. The past is an apparition that appears inevitably but without warning in the present lives of these men and women. It can be comforting or terrifying, uplifting or depressing, but its impact is as real and as strong as that of the more tangible events of the here and now—sometimes even stronger. As Renee in “The Big Outside World” realizes, “People and things never really got left behind: you’d be surprised into remembering them; your thoughts would be overturned.”
Scattered throughout the collection are references to Beattie’s theories of fiction. In the very short story “Snow” (only two and a half pages), the narrator recalls a lesson in storytelling given to her by her former lover. He said, “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.” This concept, what critics might call minimalism, is, however, only one part of the narrative strategy in Where You’ll Find Me; the unnamed narrator has her own sense of how stories emerge, take on elements of the dramatic:People forget years and remember moments. Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up: the black shroud over the pool. Love, in its shortest form, becomes a word. What I remember about all that time is one winter. The snow. Even now, saying “snow,” my lips move so that they kiss the air.
The narrator’s fixing upon the single symbol, the one clear and irrevocable image, allows the past, or forces it, to be an integral part of her present. In addition, she is consciously aware of selecting that image to the exclusion of others. The human psyche is even capable of using only part of the single image it selects. “Snow” ends with the narrator’s recognition that “no mention has been made of the snowplow that seemed always to be there, scraping snow off our narrow road—an artery cleared, though neither of us could have said where the heart was.”
In “Summer People” the protagonist, Tom, finds himself confused at the end of his summer in Vermont. His second wife, Jo, has apparently decided to quit her teaching job (something he learns in casual conversation with a local policeman) and perhaps to become pregnant, over his objection. Yet he is afraid to confront her, to hear a definite answer to the questions that trouble him. Instead, he longs, however briefly, for their transformation into characters in one of the eighteenth century novels that Jo has spent the summer reading. The appeal of such an existence, for Tom, would be that in such a world there would be no uncertainty. An omniscient narrator, such as Henry Fielding created, would be in control, would make Tom aware of everything, the past, present, and future, of what would happen if he were to have to restructure his life, love yet another woman.
These brief references to narrative technique do much to inform Beattie’s readers as to what she is about in these and the other stories here, for Beattie is clearly not an eighteenth century narrator, seizing an all-powerful and, thus, deceptively comforting control over the world she creates. The narrative presence in these stories operates on the same thin edge as do the characters, never quite willing or able to say this is it, the truth, life, as it is and will be. Instead, the narrative voice in this book gently and sometimes reluctantly, like the characters whom it presents, probes those moments, those images from life’s experiences, that yield suggestions (always tentative) about what one can do to move forward with as much dignity and grace, as much quiet joy, as possible.
The first story, “In the White Night,” details the emotional impact of a daughter’s death from leukemia on her parents. On the night that the story takes place, the child has been dead for some time, but her parents, Carol and Vernon, have spent the snowy, icy evening with old friends who have long been part of the fabric of their life. The Brinkleys, Matt and Gaye, have a daughter who was a childhood friend of Carol and Vernon’s daughter.
Seeing these old friends stirs the grief, the sense of loss, that has never left Carol and Vernon. Vernon regards Matt and Gaye as alter egos for him and his wife, absorbing much of the emotional weight of their lives and protecting them from the complete chaos of experience. Carol, on the other hand, hesitates to believe that any protection and comfort are possible in a world of random destruction and horror. She is frightened by the false sense of security Vernon has in their connection to the Brinkleys.
When they arrive home, Carol is so overcome with emotion that she hides in the bathroom until she can stop crying. She does not want the intended comfort of Vernon’s lovemaking, his usual response to the emotional distress that comes over her periodically. When she leaves the bathroom, she discovers her husband asleep on the sofa, covered with her jacket. She gets his elegant winter coat, made of camel’s hair, from the closet and lies beside him on the floor. From there, she contemplates what it takes for humans to accommodate to the terrors of living. She thinks:Anyone who was a friend would understand exactly. In time, both of them had learned to stop passing judgment on how they coped with the inevitable sadness that set in, always unexpectedly but so real that it was met with the instant acceptance one gave to a snowfall. In the white night world outside, their daughter might be drifting past like an angel, and she would see this tableau, for the second that she hovered, as a necessary small adjustment.
Whether the apparition takes the form of an angel, as with the daughter here, or some other, less comforting form, the presence of something or someone from the past hovers over each of these stories as the characters struggle to make “necessary small adjustments.”
In “Skeletons,” Nancy Niles walks ahead of her husband, Garrett, and their two-year-old son, Fraser, on Halloween, dressed as a skeleton and carrying a plastic orange pumpkin light to lead them safely on their trick-or-treat rounds. The narrator says that her skeleton could as easily be an angel, for she is guide and salvation to her family in this scene. The small necessary adjustment that Nancy has made has to do with sacrificing her career as an artist to be a wife and mother, even when she questions whether she is still in love.
On this same night, as Nancy and her family proceed with the bizarre holiday ritual, oddly costumed and somewhat unsure as to where they will go next, Kyle Brown, a young man who lived in the same rooming house with Garrett ten years earlier when they were all students, has an automobile accident. Event though the three of them have lost touch with one...