Students at a prestigious academy come under the influence of a charismatic professor
I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
One of my earliest of my obsessions with an individual writer was Ann Beattie. Two things about her drew me to her works. The first was the fact she had published—simultaneously—a collection of short stories and a novel. The novel was Chilly Scenes of Winter and the short story collection was Distortions. She has now written twenty-one magnificent works, including her latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. Her collections of short stories will provide a reader with a treasure trove of American short fiction.
I found myself identifying with Beattie’s characters who have come of age in the 1960s as I did. The main character, Ben, joins the honor society at the prestigious Bailey Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. A charismatic professor, Pierre LaVerdere, teaches his students how to think and reason, but in a sinister turn, he also teaches them to lie.
During a lecture on a painting, LaVerdere questions the students about a work of art. Ann writes, “‘Without adding more biographical information, let me suggest that while certain writers and musicians are approved of because they have a so-called vision that they return to, it is also a risky endeavor, because quantity may raise questions rather than reinforcing the impact. Does one’s adamancy convince, or suggest a possible struggle within the artist that becomes part of the art itself—perhaps inseparable from it? Something we are no doubt still thinking about, following our trip to a so-called real art gallery last year, under the supervision of Ms. Alwyn-Black, as I am sure some of you will remember another highlight of your broad—I imply no pun here—education at Bailey Academy’” (22).
When 9/11 happened, some of the parents came to take the students away. One student, Darius, did not want to leave. LaVerdere argued the boys would be safer at Bailey than anywhere else. They drove away with “Darius’s head leaning out the window like a dog’s, the sound he made equally as high-pitched” (76). The other boys stayed. Beattie wrote, “There were empty beer bottles on the counter in the morning, so Ben must have remembered correctly that [he and Lulu] had gone out to get beer. He left everything on the floor and got out as fast as he could. He would have showered, but there was only tepid water. [Ben] was glad to go. At Bailey, on 9/11, he’d experienced claustrophobia for the first time, in spite of the fact that he was free to move wherever he wanted. It had all seemed like an impossible game of chess, because there had been no good move to make. Was there anywhere his presence was truly wanted? The odd thing was when you were in school, your presence was demanded. When you left, it was up to you to find out where you fit in, if you belonged anywhere at all, or if you could convince people you belonged when you didn’t” (76-77).
Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck was a sort of chess game where some students had restricted moves, while others did not. Once again, Beattie has struck a chord matching my experiences with her own. 5 Stars.
Likely Stories is a production of KWBU. I’m Jim McKeown. Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!