We all have that friend. (Or had.) Maybe we’ve even been that friend, that person who graduates summa cum laude from an Ivy League college and who, despite all her promise and potential and intelligence, throws her future away for some loser of a guy. (Or girl. It works both ways, y’know.)
In Ann Beattie’s new novella, Walks With Men, Jane Jay Costner is that person. After graduating from Harvard and being interviewed by the New York Times, Jane becomes somewhat of an instant celebrity – if only for a moment – of her generation. She also becomes ensnared in the clutches of a guy named Neil, whose manipulative tactics and smarmy ways (for lack of a better word) are obvious to the reader right from the first paragraph – and to Jane, if she’d only admit such to herself, which she doesn’t seem to want to do.
“In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him. The deal was this: he’d tell me anything, anything, as long as the information went unattributed, as long as no one knew he and I had any real relationship. At first it didn’t seem like much of a deal, but my intuition told me knew something I didn’t know yet about the way men thought – and back then, I thought understanding men would give me information about the way I could make a life for myself. I liked his idea that nobody could know we meant anything to each other: not the college where he taught, or the magazine where he was on staff. Not my boyfriend in Vermont.
‘You give me information and I give you what?’ I said.
‘You give me a promise that nobody can trace anything back to me. I explain anything you want to know about men, but nobody can know I’m the source of your information.’
‘You think men are that special?’
‘A different species. One I understand very well. because I’ve sheltered myself there to stay out of the rain,’ he said. ‘You’re smart, but you’re missing basic knowledge that will eventually stop you dead in your tracks.’
‘Nobody talks to anybody this way,’ I said.
He said (thumb gently rubbing my wrist): ‘You don’t think I know that?'”
That’s the first page of Walks With Men. In all my years of reading, I can’t remember the last time I disliked a character so quickly. I mean, could this guy be more of a pompous prick if he tried? You want to tell poor Jane to run for zee hills (say, those of Vermont where kind and stable boyfriend Ben is living on an farm doing chores). Run far, far, far away from this self-important asshole and the CrackerJack box wisdom he seeks to impart about the ways of the world. (Yeah, the gems that Neil bestows upon Jane in exchange for her soul are truisms like “never trust a hotel that’s been renovated until the second year” and “don’t use hair conditioner. Electricity is sexy. When your hair falls forward, it reaches out. It lets me know some part of you wants something.”
My God. In the parlance of the 1980s, gag me with a fucking spoon already.
Walks With Men is like that reality show you turn on in the middle that you have no idea why you’re watching, yet something about it makes you become glued to the screen. It’s not exactly the best television ever, but there is something compelling about it that reels you in. You know it’s not very long, so you don’t mind giving up a little part of your life to watch this train wreck in front of your eyes. It’s not going to be the show (or the book) you recommend to everyone you meet but it’s one that makes you feel voyeuristic, a little bit dirty for watching, a little bit like saying, “Jeez, now my life doesn’t seem so screwed up after all compared to those people.”
This is a little mind fuck of a book. It is absolutely not for everyone (as evidenced by some of the less than favorable reviews I’ve seen of this) and quite frankly, it might not be one that I’m certain of my verdict of until it has time to marinate a little more. (That’s part of the problem with this compulsion to write one’s reviews immediately upon closing the book.)
Walks With Men is about the choices we make and don’t make, and how those choices play out in the lives of those among us on the same path. All themes that have been explored in literature before, but as I’ve said before, the hallmark of a good writer (to me at least) is someone who gets you to see these themes through a different lens. In this case, Ann Beattie gives us this through the beginnings of the Me Generation of the early 80s.
This is the first of Ann Beattie’s work that I’ve read since I was a teenager and snagged Love Always from the New Releases shelf of the library where I worked in 1985. In just reading the synopsis of Love Always on Amazon to refresh my memory (how did I expect to understand this book at 16?) it seems as if there are similar themes at play two decades later in Walks With Men. Which makes sense, of course.
Because there will always be those who wish to manipulate others for their own gains. There will always be choices we could have made and the grass will always seem greener elsewhere. There will always be ways of the world that we don’t know and don’t want to hear, regardless of how much those in our lives are silently screaming at us.
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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.