Book Review: Ann Beattie’s “Onlookers” — From a Bemused Distance
By Drew Hart
A fairly strong showing for Ann Beattie. Readers who know Charlottesville will probably have a ball with this collection of short stories, which spotlight the town’s upscale, professional residents.
Onlookers by Ann Beattie. Scribner, 275 pp., $28.
Here’s something that doesn’t happen everyday — at least to your F.C.* While the range of books he considers tends to span the globe (like ABC’s Wide World of Sports), never before has a book been written about a smallish university town that he called home for over 20 years. Did you think it was something (yet again) about New York? Nope, the gifted veteran storyteller Ann Beattie has devoted an entire collection, Onlookers, to little ol’ Charlottesville, Virginia. Beattie used to live there as well; in fact we encountered each other a few times in a nursing home that was taking care of her mother and the 100-year-old grandmother of yours truly.
Does this mean this review will be somehow colored, maybe in a rosy hue? Well, perhaps, but it isn’t because of any sentimental attachment. (There’s a reason the reviews you see are dispatched from California, maybe more than a couple…) But, because this is a fairly strong showing for Beattie, who is presenting her 21st work of fiction here, it may be a bit flattering anyway.
Let’s start with some generalities: readers who know Charlottesville will probably have a ball with this. Of course, since the infamous riot of 2017 (which took place this very week then), many are aware of the place to some degree. Onlookers is aware of that episode too — the jacket art depicts the statue of Robert E. Lee, which played a pivotal part in the battle between the far right and the rest of us, a confrontation that killed young Heather Heyer. Many of the stories here touch on that traumatic event and on the reverberations that followed. We have “Nearby,” in which an older married couple, having downsized into a condo in town, find their boredom punctuated by another protest outside over historic statues. (Meanwhile they’re being attacked by a female friend who’s hysterical about being left by her husband for another woman.) In “Monica, Headed Home,” a nursing home aide stumbles upon yet another protest scene, only to find that it’s only a movie reenactment being filmed. So yes, there’s a bit of hauntedness stemming from the incident here, and it’s true that to this day Charlottesville is still dwelling on it.
Beattie has set out to do a lot more than just recount the one weird moment that upended things, though. She has captured life there deftly, accurately, politely, and pleasurably, giving us a portrait of a town — not just any town — that spotlights its upscale, professional residents. Shades of other polite fiction (cf. Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro, Ann Patchett) are present and, because some characters are writers and professors, such authors are mentioned in these stories. You do wonder if Beattie is less edgy and startling than in her early work — one thinks of Distortions. Or is this collection simply evidence of maturation? If it seems too “nice,” and consequently potentially dull, it is still very accomplished. These stories are vignettes — they don’t proceed to major conclusions, they simply portray life, and not without skill.
At some point — if Onlookers is to have lasting value, a shelf life — someone will probably need to annotate it because, unless you are very familiar with C’ville (which is what they call it there), you won’t know what many of the references are. You won’t know that while most of them are real things — restaurants, gyms, etc. — some are invented. It would be interesting to find out — why is there a mix of the real and the fictitious? (Meanwhile, it’s funny that a famous New York City establishment like the Rainbow Room is explained as being in Rockefeller Center.)
Onlookers is chock full of amusing sound bites, some from the author, some from characters. Try these out:
“Southern enough but not too Southern, liberal, much approved of by the travel sections of glitzy magazines — ‘a bubble’.”
“Uncle Case was a great success, though in this family the bar was so low that only meant he’d gotten out of Charlottesville.”
“What was it with men in Charlottesville, trying to look like bookkeepers in a Dickens novel?”
“If anyone laid on their car horn, it was because they were dead.”
And, lest you think Beattie is giving the rest of our nation a hall pass? “She wondered what any of the figures on the statues would say, in the twenty-first century, about America’s having turned into a nation of joking, unreflective people … whose patron saints were Disney characters”
It’s also fun the way characters are integrated into different stories — in some they are the focus, in others they just make cameos, as Alfred Hitchcock used to do with his walk-ons. It’s especially pronounced in the last piece, “The Bubble,” where a bevy of them are referenced, or make quiet appearances. (Even if that story is a bit untethered some of the time…)
So to review: genteel, privileged, mostly quiet. Characters have names like Bronwyn, Blanche, Darcy. Driving Volvos and Lexuses. Drinking Albarino, ordering takeout Thai. Maybe objectionable types in the current zeitgeist? Not refugees, not of color, not of different gender identities or sexual persuasion, not angry women assaulting the patriarchy. Or is this a book of people — now minorities themselves — who could use a little attention too? Well, looks like they haven’t changed; they’re still watching PBS and quoting Hemingway. And they are indeed “onlookers” — viewing the current condition of things from a bemused distance. Nothing too new! But maybe reading this is refreshing in its own way… You’ll have to decide — but your F.C. suspects you’ll have a pretty good time doing it.
Drew Hart – your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California.