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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
Of all the standards writers impose on themselves, none is more difficult to maintain than perfect freshness. More fragile than the laconic remove of Raymond Carver or the sturdy resolve of John Updike, Ann Beattie's graceful ease has often seemed imperiled, even as she turned out some of the finest stories of the last 30 years. In the '70s, she was a New Yorker fixture and her books were bestsellers, but an '80s slump extended into the '90s, only ending in 1998 with Lorrie Moore's New York Times cover review of the career-defining collection Park City: New and Selected Stories. Through her leanest years, Beattie kept steadily turning out novels and collections, but few of the novels were as accomplished as the stories, and faithless fans abandoned ship, assuming the expiration date had passed on all her fiction.
The stories of Park City -- and now Perfect Recall -- prove how wrong they were. The best entries in this latest collection are as good as any of Beattie's earlier efforts, zooming in on familiar characters stubbornly clinging to their youth, surprised by where they've ended up in unsettling middle age. "I hear the voice in my head telling me that I've done everything wrong, that years ago I took the easy way out," muses Les, narrator of "The Big-Breasted Pilgrims." Les has been assisting Lowell, a world-famous chef, for more than 20 years, drifting with his employer from New York City to Oregon to the Florida Keys, where they live now in faintly comical luxury, hunting down exotic spices and fielding calls from the White House. Though she has become almost too skilled at cataloguing the diversions of the leisure class, Beattie is saved by her trademark sly humor. In many of the stories collected here, comedy spins into Technicolor wackiness, foreshadowing grimmer yet still bizarre developments. The heroine of "Mermaids," alone in a Key West hotel on Christmas Day, is surrounded by employees sporting furry antlers; later in the day, a crowd of skimpily dressed mermaids signals the end of the world as she knows it.
As always, much of the joy of Beattie's stories resides in details and small epiphanies. If at times Perfect Recall falters on the sentence level, as if the writer is cranking up tired machinery ("Enough of impersonating The Thinker, with his pants around his knees," says the protagonist of "Hurricane Carleyville," in the bathroom of a highway rest stop), the pitch-perfect moments outnumber the missteps. "'I know what you're going to say next,'" a husband tells his wife in "Coydog." And his voice is a voice we recognize -- Beattie's characters still talk the way we hear ourselves speak. Few writers have ever presented us with fictions that live and breathe like hers, and it is a relief to discover that they still have the power to fold us up in their embrace.