Varied, perceptive stories by Beattie



Ann Beattie.

Random House.

7 pages. $20.

Ann Beattie's latest collection of stories, for the most partconfirms her as a master of the art. They are varied, always perceptive, and filled with seemingly throwaway details that can encapsulate a whole life.

Ms. Beattie's characters often are regretful. There are couples who no longer confide in each other, parents who worry too much about their children.

One of the best stories, "Home to Marie," portrays the shifting balance between a husband and wife. Mitch, the narrator, tells us that his wife, Marie, has left him twice, although they are reconciled now. He admits he has gambled, spent too much money on himself and not enough on her, and been home late for dinner too many times. "But," he says, "I never left my wife."

As she goes upstairs to change for the catered party they are giving, Mitch is wondering if she will wear one of the sun dresses he bought her in Bermuda. Instead, she comes down in a plain linen dress, carrying a suitcase. There is no party, she says. She just wants him to know what it feels like to have food prepared and wait and wait. Then she drives off.

Mitch is stunned, and so are we. It is a fine dramatic moment. Several pages later, the story ends with an understated poignancy, as a remark by the caterer triggers Mitch's memory of the time a kid jumped him in a deserted part of town: " 'Marie, Marie,' I whispered, knowing I was in trouble. Then I walked as well as I could, got to my car, and went home to my wife."

Another story about a collapsing marriage, "The Longest Day of the Year," is simultaneously funny and touching -- vintage Beattie. The story's first sentence has a lifetime compacted into it: "Toward the end of my third marriage, when my husband and I had enough problems on our hands, the Welcome Wagon lady began to call us." The narrator -- never named -- tries to put her off, but finally lets her in.

While describing the visit, the narrator slips in a few sentences explaining why her first two marriages didn't work out. This seemingly effortless transition to the past is one of Ms. Beattie's particular skills.

She continues with a funny, deadpan description of the visit, during which everything goes wrong. Later, the narrator tells her husband the whole story, and laughing over it together is one of their last shared moments. We have no idea what the narrator looks like or what she does all day, but the essentials -- her sense of humor, her stubbornness, her pessimism -- are neatly revealed in fewer than 10 pages.

Ms. Beattie also captures the special language between parents and their children. One of my favorite stories, "You Know What," opens with a wonderful scene in the Safeway, where 5-year-old Julie tells her father, Stefan, in succession, about a class discussion about donating a kidney, the deaths of the first-grade bunny and the janitor's brother, and a classmate who drew on her forehead with Magic Marker to indicate brain surgery.

Stefan, who runs his business from home so his wife, Francine, can work full-time, worries that she is becoming a yuppie. When RTC she gets a raise, he persuades her to celebrate by sharing a bottle of champagne and then going ice-skating.

They fall in love all over again at the skating rink. But later, after showering together and making love, Stefan worries. "He has seen enough movies, read enough books, to know what happens to restless sleepers, in damp beds, who have had too much to drink. Something bad will happen." And it does, months later. The tragedy, just outside the family circle, seems as if it might be cathartic, but nothing in Ms. Beattie's world is ever so straightforward.

The novella "Windy Day at the Reservoir" is a bit of a disappointment after the stories. It starts promisingly, with Fran and Chap spending two weeks house sitting in their Italian friends' Vermont home, thinking about the lives of their absent hosts. But, quite unlike Ms. Beattie's usual style, it starts to ramble and then abruptly changes perspectives toward the end, skipping several years and explaining major events in retrospect.

Another story, "The Working Girl," is about the debate that goes on within the author when writing a story -- a clever idea, but a little self-consciously cute.

Ms. Beattie has an uncanny ability to capture a personality, or a marriage, in a couple of sentences. She seems to take the man's viewpoint as easily as the woman's, and her children's voices are completely authentic. She understands the disappointments and small joys that make up a life, and she can convey them in a few pages. If occasionally her reach exceeds her grasp, that is certainly a minor quibble.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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