Deal Me In Lite, Week 4: “Solid Wood” by Ann Beattie
This week’s story comes from The Best American Short Stories 2007, and was chosen by the Ace of clubs. It is the first story by Ann Beattie that I have ever read, and my verdict is, interesting, but not compelling. It’s one of those kinds of stories that you have to read more than once to understand all the layers of the story, and all the veiled meanings. To be honest, however, one reason I had to read this story twice was, the first time I read it was late at night, and my brain must have been pretty fuzzy because I missed a whole lot of things in the story that I only got the second time around. (Memo to me: DON’T DO THAT!)
Anyway, my general impression of this story is that there are a lot of important things that are unsaid by the characters, and that is actually part of the point of the story, I think. The narrator, Jake Stiles, is visiting Key West with his sister Doris, and while there they decide to look up the widow of a mutual friend. This friend, Jacob Foxx Greer, never appears in the story, but he is the person who ties all the events of the story together. He was Jake’s teaching colleague, a famous writer, and he was also Doris’ college professor and the father of her child. Having had the child at 19, Doris gave it up and so she never knew her son, or Jake his nephew. We are never quite sure how much of this is known by Clemmie, Greer’s widow, but the impression one gets from the story is, she knows everything and has just chosen to ignore it. In fact, at one point she comments that she thinks Greer married her because he could count on her to not remark on the obvious.
The title of the story, “Solid Wood,” is enigmatic, but comes from a magic performance the group (including Clemmie’s daughter Penny who is visiting from out of state) attends one evening at sunset on the hotel pier. “Maurice the Magnificent” performs once a year, out of respect for the white doves he uses in his very brief performance, and his rare performance happens to coincide with Jake and Doris’ visit. Jake and Doris initially have no interest in attending the show, but Clemmie calls and specifically invites them to it, saying that Maurice is a “friend’s son.” She also mistakenly calls him Martin at first (a Freudian slip?). During the performance, Doris is recruited as Maurice’s assistant, and she vouches for the integrity of two juggling pins that Maurice is using in his act, verifying that they are “solid wood.” But they are not, of course, because soon white doves come flying out of them along with flames. This seems to be a metaphor for the solid appearance of the relationship Jake, Doris, and Clemmie have, but which is apparently shot through with holes and secrets and maybe even hard feelings.
I liked this story, and would be interested in reading more of Ann Beattie’s work. Have you read much of her work? Any stories of hers you would recommend that I read next?