Ann Beattie’s Stories Confront Charlottesville, a City Remade

ONLOOKERS: Stories, by Ann Beattie

The Covid lockdown period already seems, as a subject, like a flattened corpse over which the whole of American culture and commentary has trampled. But it was only three years ago. Fiction is still catching up.

A case in point is “Onlookers,” Ann Beattie’s new collection of stories, her best in more than two decades. It takes as its subject Charlottesville, Va., a city remade by quarantine, population growth, new money and the fresh forces shaping American life. The stories are about instability and shattered certainties, some left in the wake of illness and dread, others in the wake of a surge in what the French like to call “le wokisme.”

You knew Charlottesville even before the name became synonymous with a historic rupture in American race relations. It’s the most genteel literary city in the South. It has been a magnet, thanks to its laid-back natural beauty and the renowned M.F.A. program at the University of Virginia, to personages such as Peter Taylor, Alison Lurie, Sam Shepard and Beattie herself.

It’s where James Alan McPherson and John Casey discovered Breece D’J Pancake, and where Pancake took his own life. The literati have made room, too, for an upper-echelon writer of best sellers: One of Beattie’s characters buys a book at the local indie, “where a big poster was always on display in the front window of John Grisham, staring out with those amazing eyes, at the perfect level to connect with yours.”

Charlottesville has traditionally been a self-contented and especially liberal bubble in a swing state. If anyone is so gauche as to lay on a car horn here, Beattie writes, it’s probably because they’ve died and collapsed on the wheel.

“Onlookers” follows, as is Beattie’s wont, an almost comically wide cast of characters. Some are teachers or writers; others are students who would like to be either or both. Many are upper-middle-class and in late middle-age, but others work in a nursing home. A handful are newly divorced, and at loose ends.

The ur-event that shakes their sense of their city is the 2017 white supremacist rally, lit by tiki torches, that protested the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and ended in deadly violence. Ever since, “the town had operated under a cloud of shame,” one character thinks. “It winced under the outside world’s shocked attention.”

The most seismic shocks came from the right. “I don’t know what an eagle’s supposed to symbolize now, since I don’t even know what the flag symbolizes anymore,” another character says.

Yet the surprises that came from the left were nearly as destabilizing. Another statue to be lifted away in Charlottesville was one of Lewis and Clark with Sacagawea, removed at the request of her descendants. Some thought the statue depicted her cowering; others said she was crouching, focused on the terrain, because she was a tracker. One of Beattie’s characters wonders if, before long, the only unsullied American heroes will be Disney characters.

The city’s statue of Arthur Ashe, “with his aviator sunglasses and his tennis racket,” seems safe. But what about Thomas Jefferson? Monticello has become a cultural target. One character thinks, about the U.Va. campus, which Jefferson helped design:

Maybe a dirigible with Sally Hemings’s face on the side could hover above the heart of the place as a reminder of the way things had really been, her visage looming above the grassy lawn that stretched between the Rotunda and Cabell Hall. She could look down on everything, like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in “The Great Gatsby.”

No greater generation gap has opened in America since the 1960s. Beattie both satirizes and sympathizes with the plight of her characters, well-meaning older liberals who aren’t sure they’re allowed enjoy their takeout crispy duck “when everything that had created the opportunity for it had been discredited, when they were only ascendant because they hadn’t yet died out.”

A line from David Milch’s memoir, “Life’s Work,” published last year, came to mind: “Sometimes hating yourself is a fair response to the data.”

Beattie began publishing her short stories in The New Yorker in the spring of 1974. She’s been famous for nearly all my sentient life. The mesmerizing sketch of her by David Levine — she resembles Virginia Woolf with a devouring mouth and Rapunzel’s hair and David Byrne’s boxy, oversized jacket — seemed to run in nearly every other issue of The New York Review of Books.

(It must irk younger writers that there are no more sketches to be had from Levine, who died in 2009. To be drawn by him was an apotheosis; there were few more certain signs that the stamp, as it were, was on the meat.)

Rereading all those N.Y.R.B. reviews in preparation to write this one, I was surprised to see that so many were negative; I’m not sure any other major writer has taken so many lashings in that venue. Perhaps it’s because she never wrote for the clubby semiweekly. If another recent book from Beattie — “More to Say: Essays & Appreciations,” which came out in February — is any indication, she isn’t a natural critic.

The rap against Beattie, in sum, is that her work can be aimless, “twee,” lacking in political and other convictions, plotless, a bit draggy. All feathers and no bird, marginalia in search of a thesis. She is too alert to the tender souls of the bolshy bourgeoisie, stirring groats on their Viking ranges. All these things are true at times, even in “Onlookers.”

This book reminds you, more often, of why readers cared about her in the first place. She’s a dry yet earthy writer, in touch with moods and manners, with an eye for passing comedy. (One character mistakes Burt Bacharach, on television, for Jeffrey Epstein.) She is a fine appraiser of socioeconomic detail. (The nouveau riche and their pineapple doorknockers!) She takes notes on her species, as if she were a naturalist observing robins. She pries at the mystery of life. There’s a strong feeling of convergence in her best stories.

Some writers construct their narratives out of big set pieces. It’s like watching containers being loaded onto a ship. Beattie builds her stories like bird’s nests; every sentence is a twig. When you live in a bird’s nest, like living in a bubble, the threats are everywhere.

“It didn’t have to be Halloween for the evil witch’s wrath to get aimed in someone’s direction,” Beattie writes. “Covid was the witch’s pointed finger.”

ONLOOKERS: Stories | By Ann Beattie | 275 pp. | Scribner | $28

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His new book, “The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading,” is out this fall. More about Dwight Garner

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