‘Jacklighting’ by Ann Beattie

Jacklighting by Ann Beattie, 1982

The magic trick:

Mixing reasons for sadness: marital infidelity and death

This is probably my favorite Ann Beattie story. It’s really somber and really affecting.

In it, we find what is pretty much a Beattie trope: an instance of casual infidelity. It’s flaunted really. The narrator’s husband thinks he might be in love with one of his students. Oh, OK. Sure. Great.

These moments in Beattie’s story often throw me. It’s obviously a problem. It obviously hurts the narrator here. It might be the heart of the story. But it’s not a deal breaker. It’s a conflict, not a conclusion. Her stories’ moral compass often feels unfamiliar to my own.

Not her fault. Not her problem. But it’s still a fact. It often keeps me from really feeling the stories truly, because I just can’t fit my brain into this reality.

So, that situation again shows itself here in this story for me. But we have an opposing emotional force present as well. “Jacklighting” features a death in the family. The whole story is told through the lens of nostalgia; memories of the boy who is no longer present.

Suddenly, this detached reaction to infidelity feels more appropriate. It does pale in comparison to the finality of death. It finds what feels like a sensible place in this story’s emotional hierarchy. The resulting tone is really something special. You can really feel this story, not just read.

And that’s quite a trick on Beattie’s part.

The selection:

Wynn is standing in the field across from the house, pacing, head down, the bored little boy grown up.

“When wasn’t he foolish?” Spence says, walking through the living room. “What kind of sense does it make to turn against him now for being a fool?”

“He calls it mid-life crisis, Spence, and he’s going to be thirty-two in September.”

“I know when his birthday is. You hint like this every year. Last year at the end of August you dropped it into conversation that the two of you were doing something or other to celebrate his birthday.”

“We went to one of those places where a machine shoots baseballs at you. His birthday present was ten dollars’ worth of balls pitched at him, I gave him a Red Sox baseball cap. He lost it the same day.”

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