- Walks With Men
- Scribner, 102 pp.
Taste, at its purest level, is personal and intuitive. But culture and refinement, an expensive wine, say, or a finely knitted scarf, is usually an acquired aesthetic. In Ann Beattie’s new novella, Walks With Men, having a good taste for things becomes an education. Grasping the subtleties of discernment (“Asparagus are the best vegetable” and “Wear only raincoats made in England”) is a compelling force for the protagonist.
Beattie, like in so much of her earlier work, leaves a lot to the imagination. Between the dialogue and the action, certain assumptions, even leaps of faith, are sometimes necessary to get from one paragraph to the next. There are better ways to render suspense—less does not always mean more—but you get the sense from the very first sentence that something important is about to be revealed.
“In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.”
And so the narrator, Jane Jay Costner, a summa cum laude from Harvard, lets Neil, a professor at Barnard, try to change her life. Of course, Jane, as she’s telling her story, is looking back on a younger self. She has disparaged her education in the midst of Jimmy Carter and become an “overnight sensation” because of it. Neil buys her a Barbour jacket on Lexington Avenue, and before you know they’re married.
What Beattie decides to include and what she leaves out is less remarkable than how she handles the timeline and the impact of the narrator’s decisions. Before she marries Neil, she has to end her relationship with her boyfriend, Ben, in Vermont.
She also has to sustain an encounter with Neil’s wife, Lisa, who she did not know about. Salinger, God rest his literary soul, would most likely have approved of how the author accentuates Lisa’s eccentricity through her speech.
“I thought about getting your number somehow and telling you, but the truth is, I wanted to meet you. You’re pretty. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. I’m pretty, too. There we have it.”
But we don’t have it. We don’t know what Jane really values. As the narrator suggests, her decision to marry Neil has more to do with her youthful shortcomings than with love. Neil is the older guy who tries to teach her things.
“Valentine’s day is for suckers. Buy real lace, and think of something else to do with it.”
In due time, we get a laundry list of dos and don’ts, preferences acquired and recorded. This is not entirely the same thing as good taste. Eventually Jane tells Neil to cut it out. The frame works well for Beattie because she can use hindsight to reinvent a golden age and perhaps reach out to a younger generation of readers and graduates trying to make their way in the big city. (“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” sang Sinatra. Good luck, though, in this current economy.)
It is not Jane’s actions, but her reactions to things that happen to her that drive the story.
Not long after her old boyfriend, Ben, reincarnated as “Goodness,” as he calls himself, shows up at her door promoting peace and love, she begins to think about why she left him and what had happened to her life.
“I’d gone to New York City and taken up with the first person who came along. How could that have been true? What happened to the things I’d left in Vermont? What book had I been reading that I’d left behind?”
In the end, this is very much a story about wanting to grow up and then wondering later why you had to go and do it all so quickly. Jane is not quite the same young woman we imagined strolling down Lexington Avenue at the outset. Her life, as Neil had promised, had changed—but it’s hard to know how much of a role he—or she—had in changing it.
Coming of age in New York has always been a tricky story to tell. After all, there’s much more to making it there than a rich guy and a good raincoat. Having a heart helps too, if only you can find it. I’m glad Beattie decided to turn this story into a small novel, but there are too many gaps and abbreviations to make this feel fully realized.
It is a bit unsatisfying to not know what Jane wants, or thought she wanted. In another light, endeavoring to render the city lights of post-graduate uncertainty may be exactly the point. Beattie, of course, is too smart to give too much away. All the same, a bigger glimpse of what’s at stake would’ve made this a better book.