Phew. Last summer was a mess. Everywhere you looked, someone was splitting up or fighting. Children seemed to have turned out badly, and uttered shocking obscenities. People forced each other to face various stark realities, and if they tried evasively to look out the window, people were fighting in the street. It was too hot, and there was a shooting.
At least this was last summer, as pictured in "Falling in Place," a new novel by Ann Beattie. The author insists on last summer as the time. She's always mentioning that Blondie is singing "Heart of Glass" on the radio, and her characters keep remarking that Skylab is falling. The events of the novel are discomforting, all the more so because you can't just shrug it all off as happening once upon a time. This was the summer of '79, she seems to be saying again and again; you might as well face it.
Split-ups, misunderstandings, and estrangements jangle in sharper fragments because they are told by many different voices. We hear the teen-age derision of Mary Knapp, and then the listless complaints of her summer school teacher, Cynthia Forrest (whom she calls "Lost in the Forest" and who really feels lost, confronted by Mary's seeming illiteracy). We get in on the musings of two fat 12-year-old boys, and the confabulations of Louise Knapp, Mary's mother, and her stridently "conscious" friend Tiffy. You might wonder wildly where Ann Beattie is taking you, especially at first, when the book is like a terrifying taxi ride , bolting along among the misfortues of a gang of strangers with no apparent objective in view.
The book is rich in detail. (Maybe it's all detail.) The flutter of faces and voices gives the book a wonderful energy. You don't get confused. Rather, you fall in with the pace, or you feel tugged along by each new clamoring voice, each seeming to say more urgently than the last, "Yeah, but you know what happened to me?!"