In her new novel, part-time Maine resident Ann Beattie, author of “The Accomplished Guest,” “The State We’re In” and 19 other books, chronicles the meanderings of a group of private high school students as they cope with a post-9/11 world.

The novel opens at a meeting of the Bailey Academy Honor Society, aka LaVerdere’s Leading Lights, where charismatic humanities teacher Pierre LaVerdere holds forth, dispensing wisdom of dubious merit. Among the students present is Ben, a seemingly easy-going senior, who finds himself both fascinated and repelled by LaVerdere as the teacher alternately charms and bloviates.

Beattie’s elusive, nearly omniscient narrator observes, “Oh, the guy could be excruciating – as could anyone whose in-jokes were primarily for himself. Those fey gestures! The way his chin jutted out parodically. His heart was in the right place, though…”

Was it? Even before graduation, Ben comes to wonder whether anyone’s relationship with LaVerdere is a positive one. The teacher usually seems to be advocating the employment of reason to settle disputes, but there’s an undercurrent of anger and duplicity. There is also the question of whether the reader should believe everything the narrator says.

Photo courtesy of Viking

After graduation, Ben leaves the New Hampshire school and enrolls at Cornell, but his and his cohort’s experiences as undergraduates are not clearly explicated but are addressed mostly by implication. Ben eventually settles down in a more rural area outside New York City, befriends the couple next door and contemplates a romance with the man’s wife. The back half of the novel follows Ben into his upstate retreat.

Two other women in particular occupy space in Ben’s post-Cornell life. His stepmother, Elin, wants a closer relationship than he is able to muster. His Bailey classmate LouLou flits in and out of his life.

Plot has never been Beattie’s strong suit, but the story being related in “A Wonderful Stroke of Luck” seems especially languid and diffuse. Ben drifts from job to job, girlfriend to girlfriend. He falls for a scarily reckless young woman named Arly, who disturbs and frightens him with her unpredictability.

Arly especially offers Beattie the chance to show off her celebrated sense of humor. When Arly encounters Ben’s sister Brenda for the first time, the results are electric. Arly says, “I know you withdrew after your mother’s death and that you have as little to do with Elin as possible, and that you’re gay, even if you don’t say so.”

“Wow,” Brenda said. “Ben, really. An amazing choice you’ve made here.”

Less dangerous than Arly but still unstable is LouLou, who, with her female partner Dale, eventually makes a request of Ben that he’s constitutionally incapable of addressing in a thoughtful way.

At the novel’s climax, LaVerdere returns, calling from Ben’s favorite bar and wanting to speak with him immediately. With some trepidation, the two meet. In some ways, the teacher seems unchanged: “Disarming. A straight shooter. Except that LaVerdere never thought a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. LaVerdere got what he wanted by throwing curveballs.”

LaVerdere’s unexpected return to Ben’s life is certainly a curveball, upsetting the younger man’s boyhood memories and opening his eyes to a devastating family secret. Ben doesn’t appreciate his former teacher’s glibness. He asks, “You think this is some Edward Albee play?”

“A Wonderful Stroke of Luck” works best in its early and its late chapters. The middle of the book, thanks perhaps to Ben’s general indecisiveness, hangs heavily, like an occupied hammock. Much of what happens in the book happens between events. Characters express themselves more with what they don’t say.

From the start of her career, Beattie has been hailed for her depiction of the baby boomers, but she doesn’t seem to have as sure a handle on the millennials. Ben and his classmates had their world views permanently darkened when they witnessed the towers falling. They have a difficult time making or keeping friendships or romantic commitments. But Beattie never quite succeeds in pinpointing the source of their disaffection. Many remain mysteries to the end, including Ben.

Beattie’s forte is the short story, and “A Wonderful Stroke of Luck” sometimes reads more like a collection than a novel. Individual chapters could stand on their own, without needing to add up to something more. Ben and LouLou’s disastrous road trip with a passive-aggressive driver might feel more substantial on its own.

The epigraph is attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” The reader is left wondering to whom that proverb applies. Ben? LaVerdere? The narrator? All of us?

Beattie relishes the societal and psychological ambiguities that plague her characters. “A Wonderful Stroke of Luck” gets by on its charm and wit, much like the troubled academic who haunts the protagonist.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry

 


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