by Ann Beattie
Originally published in the September 19, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

It’s been six years since Ann Beattie last published a piece of fiction in The New Yorker. I was looking forward to reading it, though I really disliked her most recent work, the novella Walks with Men (my review here).

“Starlight” is an excerpt from a new novel Beattie, a master of short fiction, is working on. Though I get annoyed at these excerpts as they usually appear to be paid-for marketing rather than a genuine attempt to give us some quality short fiction, at times the marketing works to our benefit. I would never have read Beattie’s novel because she didn’t, in my mind, even pull of the novella — stick to your short short fiction, I would say. But, though “Starlight” didn’t leave me gushing, it did interest me in the topic Beattie chose enough that I may check out the novel, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, which comes out in November (okay, such is my reading load right now that, despite my interest, I’m probably not interested enough to actually read the book, so anyone’s comments are appreciated).

“Starlight” begins with a section entitled “Mrs. Nixon Joins the Final Official Photograph.” Here are the Nixon’s grasping for some dignity in their final moments before being ejected from the White House. Beattie does a great job presenting the rush of preparation, the type of rush that is also an attempt to avoid feeling, something like Emily Dickinson’s “The Bustle in a House the Morning After Death.” But the thoughts will not be pushed aside:

The plane will transport us. California is there waiting for us, earlier in time, still young. And Dick: what is he thinking? That we have to be a united family until the last, united for posterity, acting like the cross in front of the vampire, warding off evil and repelling anyone who wants to transgress against us. Because we are the Nixons, like a lineup of suspects: that’s the man who said the war had to continue; he’s the one who tried to tell the nation what was best. And his wife, why isn’t she looking at the camera? Why isn’t she trying harder? She went mute long ago.

The next section is the short, “Mrs. Nixon reacts to ‘RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,'” followed by the longest vignetter, “Brownie,” my favorite. It begins, “What exactly do you do if your husband brings home a dog?” Mr. Nixon was out for a walk one night and brought home a new dog. The vignette is a terrible look at a man who just wants to keep the dog and who won’t stop talking. The back-and-forth between him and Mrs. Nixon is something to behold, Mrs. Nixon mostly keeping quiet, Mr. Nixon going all over the place.

The final vignette is “Mrs. Nixon’s Thoughts, Late-Night Walk, San Clemente,” which brings the piece to its close, though we can feel it is not finished, and I mean not finished in a bad way. It’s like the ending was tacked on because, after all, these are just a selection of the many vignettes that will presumably build to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, the whole thing takes 15 minutes to read, and dang it if writing this review didn’t make me even more tempted to go read the book when it comes out.

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