Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Ann Beattie’s short story “The Burning House,” she describes the intertwined lives of a group of upwardly mobile friends, spouses, relatives, and lovers in late twentieth century Connecticut. The story is told from the point of view of Amy, who is married to Frank, a stodgy accountant with whom she has no real relationship. She is much closer to Frank’s younger brother Freddy, a free spirit. It is, in fact, Amy’s relationship with the various men in her life that drives the story.
As the story opens, Amy is out in the kitchen with Freddy, cooking dinner for several of Frank’s male friends—Tucker, who owns an art gallery in New York City, and J.D., who hasn’t yet arrived. Tucker and Frank are out in the living room getting drunk. Freddy and Amy smoke a joint as the food cooks, and as if on a dare, Freddy flicks his ashes into the sauce. The group, deciding not to wait for J.D., eats dinner. They discuss various male artists whom Tucker has represented (and possibly bedded); of one gay artist, Tucker says “I want that boy. I really want that boy,” and Freddy says “You’ll get him....You get everybody you go after.” We aren’t sure at that moment whether we’re talking about Tucker’s gallery or his love life, although the implication is weighted in favor of the latter.
After dinner, the group breaks up into the original configuration—Frank and Tucker in the dining room, Freddy and Amy outside in the garden—and we learn from Amy’s conversation that she knows her husband is having an affair with another woman; she even knows the woman’s name. She knows Frank is avoiding her, but he is avoiding their six-year-old Mark, as well, and this is causing Mark some emotional problems; on the evening in which this story takes place, he is staying over at his grandmother’s and clamoring to come home, undoubtedly to make sure his “home” is still intact.
The missing JD appears suddenly, popping up in front of the kitchen window in a goat’s mask and nearly scaring Amy to death. She drops a glass in the sink and the broken glass cuts her finger; J.D. solicitously comes in and squeezes her finger to put pressure on the wound. The phone rings, and it is only at this point that we learn Amy has a lover too; the boyfriend, Johnny, tells her he just had to hear the sound of her voice. The gesture is not comforting—it only increases Amy’s overall stress. J.D., in fact, introduced Amy and Johnny; Johnny’s existence has become their secret, just as Frank’s lover has become a topic of conversation Amy can share with Freddy. But the atmosphere is full of secrets, of things everyone knows but which cannot be acknowledged in polite company—Tucker’s homosexuality, Freddy’s drug use, Amy and Frank’s affairs.
At the end of the story Amy and Frank settle into bed for the night. This should be the most intimate of spaces, the place where either party can say anything and share everything. But the knowledge they share is the knowledge that this union cannot last much longer. “I want to know if you’re staying or going,” Amy says, and, unexpectedly taking her hand, Frank tells her, “I’m looking down on all of this from space. I’m already gone.”
Earlier on the last page, Frank tells Amy that her biggest mistake in life was surrounding herself with men. And whether or not this was a mistake, it’s certainly true that Amy is the most alienated person in this story. She has no one to whom she can really open up, no one with whom she can share; even her best friend Freddy’s primary allegiance is not to her but to his brother Frank. Surrounded by friends and family, Amy is completely alone.
“The Burning House” can be found in the collection of the same name, available from Amazon here:
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