Alice Adams' 'City': the pain of memory

February 21, 1999|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"The Last Lovely City," by Alice Adams. Knopf. 192 pages. $22.

I came to Alice Adams' new collection of short stories fresh after finishing Bret Easton Ellis' new novel, the ruinous, totally exhilarating "Glamorama." Though Adams and Ellis, upon a first, cursory read, seem to have nothing in common, in fact their worlds -- privileged, thin, white, self-absorbed -- aren't that far apart. Ellis' withering, nostalgic models and actresses could be the kids and grandkids of Adams' elegant, greedy wisps. The generational difference is in the prose: Ellis' sleek, relentless sentences are like beautiful silver monsters and Adams' coiled, command, parenthesis-laden lines are the vain, scared maidens they eat.

Take the beginning of "Racoons," one of the best stories that Adams includes in this collection: "Every evening, despairingly, Mary Alexander, a former actress, puts out tin bowls of food for Linda, her cat, who is lost: stolen, starving somewhere, locked in a strange garage -- maybe dead." Look at that sentence! Timid and skittish as its sad heroine, whose cat has run away.

Yes, this Mary Alexander is a typical Alice Adams creation, a woman you'd be crazy to seek out as a friend, sort of a Shirley MacLaine type, an artsy, casually smug San Franciscan who thinks, wrongly, that "[her] life does not fit the stereotype of the lonely old woman whose only companion is her cat." But as ordinary as Mary is, this story is a stunner. Adams, with expert sleight of hand, makes the simple familiar action of looking for a missing cat painfully suspenseful -- and when the cat returns, with a new personality, eerily supernatural.

Other stories in the collection cover the less fertile ground of dissipated romance, with the usual bitter epiphanies built from lackluster flashbacks. There are, for my taste, too many stories of male sexual failure. Ahem. The final four stories of the collection are effectively linked, building to a joyous, moving finish.

But a story collection must have its masterpiece, and here Adams doesn't fail: The title story knocked me out. "The Last Lovely City" takes us to an elegant, terrible San Francisco party where Dr. Benito Zamora encounters his past and makes one abrupt decision that even as it startles him seems to bring him a kind of peace he'd been in search of for years, maybe his whole life.

His wife, Elizabeth, has recently died, and the awful party fills Zamora with memories: "A problem with death, the doctor has more than once thought, is its removal of all the merciful dross of memory: he no longer remembers any petty annoyances, ever, or even moments of boredom, irritation, or sad, failed acts of love. All that is erased, and he only recalls, with the most cruel, searing accuracy, the golden peaks of their time together.

Adams knows that the beauty is its impermanence, and in her best stories she convinces us that, even so, beautiful moments are worth the pain the memory of them causes.

What Adams has done here is difficult. She's transformed the bored, the self-satisfied, the difficult-to-please petulance of a certain breed of American, circa-1999, into the engaging stuff of neurotic fables. Rather than fight dragons, witches, and ogres, Adams' people have affairs, travel and have more affairs -- love, really, is their only rite of passage.

Ben Neihart is the author of the novel "Hey, Joe." His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker. "Burning Girl," his new novel, will be published this April.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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