Escape Artists

It is dangerous to stray outside New England, to places where the chill predictabilities of winter are overlapped by the warm ocean currents of self-indulgence and self-deceit: to places where the bracing necessities of shoveling snow are replaced by the velvet and slippery deceptions of bodily warmth. Harry DeKroll entertains mild regrets for Key West in the days when it offered “the great escape,” for days when easily available mind-altering substances adjusted reality more effectively than today’s intake of con leche and Oprah. Harry the Housesitter is the narrator of Ann Beattie’s new story “The Siamese Twins Go Snorkeling.” He stands by and watches someone else get a life (and employ him to service it), while he himself is occupied with work on “Great American Novel about drifters in Key West; yes, it will have been written before, but ne’er so well expressed.”

Alison Lurie, by contrast, has invented a character who in Key West is at odds with everyone around him. He alone has a stern purpose: it is suicide. For others, day devolves sweetly into day, heat and luxuriance feeding upon themselves, and if—like one character—you are crippled and constricted by arthritis, you think of Key West as a lap into which you can tumble, a salving mama; or if you are gay and HIV-positive, and watching your blood-count the way people in harsher climates watch the barometer, you can choose the moment when the waters will take you under. But Wilkie Walker is the man whom the waves refuse. His egotism is like a life vest, constantly bobbing back, floating him nose-to-nose with the possibility of his professional failure and washing him against the wreck of a twenty-five-year marriage.

His wife Jenny is now forty-six, and Wilkie is seventy. They married just after she graduated, and the marriage saved her from aimlessness. She wanted to devote her life to someone, and Wilkie needed her devotion. At that time he had two failed marriages behind him. Attractive but emotionally selfish, he is a man of high intellectual attainment but scant practical ability. He would rather delegate the business of shopping or household repairs or balancing a checkbook. Besides taking care of his day-to-day needs, Jenny has been his faithful secretary, researcher, in effect co-writer. She has always minimized her role, and allowed Wilkie to take full credit.

As well as a solipsist, Wilkie is a naturalist, and a popular author. He has been working on a book called The Copper Beech, and it is almost finished. Only one chapter is needed, and the book has already been announced in his publisher’s catalog. It is to be the culmination of his life’s work, drawing together all his interests and concerns. One can easily see that this could be a fateful moment in a writer’s life. Because after it, what is there left to do? The writer puts down the pen: he dies, artistically and perhaps actually.

So it is no surprise …

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