Ann Beattie is one of the best writers of her generation, although it's unclear whether the author would take that as a compliment. In books like the novel Love Always and the short story collection Where You'll Find Me, Beattie employed her dry wit and sometimes chilly cynicism to paint a less than flattering picture of her fellow baby boomers. The books were never cruel, but they established Beattie as a writer unwilling to act as a cheerleader for her generational cohort.
In her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Beattie casts her jaundiced eyes on a new generation — older millennials. The protagonist of the book, Ben, and his friends are in high school when the September 11 attacks reshape the world. Beattie's skepticism is on full display in the novel; unfortunately, the excellent writing and arch sense of humor that made her previous books so great are not.
The novel opens with Ben and his classmates attending a meeting of the honor society at the New Hampshire boarding school they attend. He and his friends are in the thrall of Pierre LaVerdere, the blowhard teacher who sponsors the club. It's unclear why the students find him so charming — he comes across as a pretentious mansplainer who you'd hate to sit next to on an airplane, or, for that matter, anywhere — but the kids love him, even if they do have some reservations: "Oh, the guy could be excruciating — as could anyone whose in-jokes were primarily with himself."
The book follows Ben through several years of his life. He attends college, gets a series of jobs he doesn't like, and generally walks around New York being disaffected. He embarks on a stormy relationship with a young woman named Arly, about whom the reader does not learn much except that she is a comically terrible human being.
Eventually he buys a house outside the city, which gives him a whole new place to be disaffected. He nurses a crush on a neighbor's wife and reconnects with some of his high school friends, including LouLou, who asks him to donate his sperm so she and her partner can have a child. This disaffects him.
Toward the end of the book, LaVerdere makes an appearance in Ben's life. He's as unbearable and charmless as ever, although, in one of the book's only human moments, he confesses a painful secret to Ben, which causes the young man to finally have a real emotional reaction to something. Then the book ends, with the reader not really having learned anything about Ben or his mostly vacuous friends.
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is a profoundly maddening novel for several reasons, one of which is Beattie's evident unalloyed dislike of every character in the book. That's not to say a novel's characters have to be likable, but they do have to have some traits besides their unlikability. Beattie not only seems to regard her characters with contempt, it seems that she would very much like to punch them all in the face.
She also doesn't quite have her finger on the pulse of the millennials she writes about. The high schoolers in the first part of the book don't speak like actual teenagers, and they make several references to the films Five Easy Pieces and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, both of which delighted audiences during the Nixon administration. One of the students is fond of a musician named Stiff Formaldehyde, which maybe — maybe — would have been a plausible name for a punk rocker in 1978. The scenes describing the honor society meetings basically play out like Dead Poets Society if every character in the movie kind of sucked.
Beattie has always been capable of memorable turns of phrase, and there are a few in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. Arly, Beattie writes, "was like cigarette ash, her grudges tiny, glowing embers waiting to flare," which is great. But Beattie giveth and Beattie taketh away. She describes one character as "human Velcro, her words the tiny loops she hoped would attach her to whomever she'd cornered." It's an excellent description, but she immediately follows it up with "Ben and Jasper agreed that you could almost see her thinking, her eyes locked on the distance like someone peeing in a pool." There's not much one can say about that other than "Wait. What?"
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is a charmless and rambling gesture at a novel from an author who's capable of so much better. It's not going to threaten Beattie's place as one of the country's greatest novelists, but it's certainly going to confuse her fans, and anybody who picks it up. The point of the novel seems to be that miserable people enjoy making other miserable people even more miserable. But there are easier ways to learn that lesson. Just go to a bar. Or open a Twitter account.