Sunday, July 31, 2016
Ann Beattie's story takes a theme that is familiar in midcentury American lit—the philandering college professor and his various agonies—and turns it on its head, taking the point of view of one of his long-suffering victims. In this case, it's George and his common-law wife, Lenore, who is 21 years younger than him and with a child by him. She is blindly loyal, but stung to the quick when she overhears George tell another woman that she (Lenore) is "simple." Much that is essential about their relationship is revealed in that slight, but there's more to tell. Lenore believes, or at least is only starting to disbelieve, that time is on her side. She thinks all she has to do is wait and George will marry and provide for her. She concentrates on keeping house, baking bread, and raising the child—there's an unmistakable hippie feel to the way Lenore organizes her life. For his part, George is slipping into dissolution. He was denied tenure and left his teaching post two years previous to this story. Since then, he has been unemployed, living the life of a New England writer in the countryside, though he doesn't appear to be doing much writing. He likes to entertain past students who stop at the house with them on weekends. Lenore sees the evidence of George's unfaithfulness—it is even pointed out to her directly in a scene that is atmospheric if hard to believe. At first her rationalizations make sense—he's a middle-aged man in his 50s. Is he having sex outdoors? But the sex itself is unimportant. He is obviously giving more of himself to these students than he gives to Lenore. As much as anything, this story is about the breakdown of Lenore's denial of that. At this point, personally, I've nearly had it with American stories about philandering college professors, but Beattie's story is moving and unsettling. The situation between George and Lenore is broken, and a little horrifying. On the weekend recounted here, George appears to be more flagrant than usual with a visiting young woman, and something causes her and her friend to break off the visit and leave early, taking off after dark on Saturday. It's unclear what went wrong exactly. What's more clear is that Lenore has suddenly realized, which I guess makes this an epiphany story, that she can't count on George for a future. He is 55. She is 34. They have a child. The story dwells deep inside Lenore, with huge blocks of paragraphs on her thoughts. Even in her clarity Lenore is something of a muddled person. The strongest sense of her is incoherent pain and resentment. As troubled as she is, you can't help sympathizing with her. Bleak but effective.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks