A 22-Year-Old Looks Back on Life
In 1972, The New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “An Eighteen-Year- Old Looks Back on Life”. The story, authored by Joyce Maynard, brought her a great deal of attention, notably from the 53-year-old J.D. Salinger. The couple had an affair, which Maynard later wrote about in At Home in The World.
Maynard’s experience came to mind as I read Ann Beattie’s masterful novella, Walks with Men. In the right hands, the novella is a wonderful form—more expansive than a short story, by necessity punchier than a novel. Beattie’s work is like receiving an unexpected gift. There is so much pure pleasure to be taken in her writing, the perfect, economical sentences, the pointed details.
The year is 1980. Jane Jay Costner, a 22-year-old Harvard Valedictorian, has recently arrived in New York City, where an interview with the New York Times regarding her disaffected generation has garnered much controversy. Neil, a 44-year-old professor, is writing a commentary for the paper on Jane’s statements. The two meet, and Neil offers Jane an irresistible tutorial: an explanation of the lives of men. How they think. What they want. Appended to this education is additional information on how to live. Sample aphorisms:
“Wear only raincoats made in England.”
“Have sex in airplane bathrooms.”
“Screen calls. Never answer the phone when it rings. It’s only an indication that someone wants to talk to you.”
“Don’t use conditioner. Electricity is sexy. When your hair falls forward, it reaches out. It lets me know some part of you wants something.”
Statements like this, along with gifts of said English raincoats and matching Burberry scarves, are intoxicating for the right sort of girl: brainy, pretty, painfully aware of her own naiveté regarding not only men but the finer points of garments, wineglasses, and telephone etiquette. Or lack thereof.
Jane initially falls for Neil’s lines. Of course he’s off writing all night: writers write at night. It’s okay that she really isn’t doing much herself. It’s okay that Neil is supporting her. Having inherited both cash and property, Neil can afford to support himself and a couple of women, as well. Furthermore, Jane is only 22. When you are 22-years-old, it’s easy to overlook a great deal. (Think back. Wince.) Reality will soon intervene in the form of Neil’s wife, and the besotted Jane will grow up, wise to Neil’s seemingly offhand one-liners, including a favorite ploy involving her friends:
“‘What do you want me to do,’ he would eventually say to me, ‘about your friend X, who called me at work and asked me to have a drink with her?’”
After meeting Neil’s wife and enduring a cascade of unhappy revelations, Jane breaks off the relationship. There are the expected tears and recriminations and reunions. An older or less malleable woman would flee such a man. Jane marries him. She marries him knowing he is a pathological liar. She marries him despite warnings from her friends and his ex-wife. She marries him despite a prenup agreement whose stipulations include yearly payouts for avoiding adultery. The prenups is tilted generously in Jane’s favor, but a prenup based on avoiding adultery doesn’t bode well over the long term. After all, who marries with the idea of dividing up the cash at some hostile, later date?
Jane’s relationship with Neil—a stew of little common sense mixed with hopeless love—makes her a walking exemplar of too many self-help books: Women Who Love too Much, Smart Women, Foolish Choices, Men who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. Jane realizes Neil is a liar so lacking an authentic self that even his bon mots are lacking spontaneity. Instead, each is carefully constructed and penned in a notebook, which he leaves out, inviting perusal.
Yet part of her rebels. When he asks her what to do about the BMW saleswoman asking him out, she tells him to do as he pleases. When he begins dispensing his canned advice, she leaves the room. Yet she continues to admire his collection of flashlights arranged in a crystal vase, which light the room so alluringly. She believes him when he says one must either purchase a new garment of the highest quality possible or shop vintage. Somehow, in the inexplicable way women love lousy men, Jane loves Neil.
Before meeting Neil, Jane lived with another man, an artistic, counterculture type named Ben.Ben worked on a Vermont farm, growing vegetables and making cheese. After Jane’s departure, Ben inherited much of the farmland, and in a prescient move, renamed himself Goodness and opened the Goodness Studio, where rock musicians and other famous folk practiced their downward dogs.
Goodness is an almost comedic foil to Neil, also given to speaking in aphorisms, only Goodness sounds like the love child of Pema Chödrön and the Dalai Lama. When Goodness appears on her Chelsea doorstep, Jane is bemused but dismissive. Only his unexpected fate—a plot spoiler—will shake her back to herself.
Jane encounters her own significant success as a writer, but her personal life implodes. Events are compressed, the novella filled with surprising turns that keep the reader suspended but never disbelieving. Many women have had a Neil in their lives, a man who shook everything up, including a bedrock of self-respect, only to depart in some absolute, final way, leaving her to sort out the pieces.
In Jane’s case she survives, realizing she is in love with a master manipulator and refuting his efforts at control. Decades later she is still pondering which of his statements were accurate, useful notions—the drinking of loose tea, Prosecco instead of Champagne, wine in short glasses, never stemmed goblets. Decades later, another woman might accept the occasional teabag of Earl Grey, or perhaps, invest in an L. L. Bean waterproof. Another woman would forget what one man told her when she was barely out of her teens.
Jane never does. Long after the wrong man has disappeared, he continues exerting his hold.