A razor-sharp, deeply felt new novelthe twenty-first book by Ann Beattieabout the complicated relationship between a charismatic teacher and his students, and the secrets we keep from those we love
At a boarding school in New Hampshire, Ben joins the honor society led by Pierre LaVerdere, an enigmatic, brilliant, yet perverse, teacher who instructs his students not only about how to reason, but how to prevaricate. As the years go by, LaVerdere's covert and overt instruction lingers in his students' lives as they seek some sense of purpose or meaning. When Ben feels the pace of his life accelerating and views his intimate relationships as less and less fulfilling, there seems to be a subtext he's not able to access. And what, really, did Bailey Academy teach him?
While relationships with his stepmother and sister improve, and a move to upstate New York offers respite from his anxiety about love and work, LaVerdere's reappearance in his life disturbs his equilibrium. Everything he once thought he knew about his teacherand himselfis called into question. Written by one of our most iconic writers, known for casting a cold eye on her generation's ambivalence and sometimes mistaken ambition, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is a keenly observed psychological study of a man who alternates between careful driving and hazardous risk taking, as he struggles to incorporate his past into the vertiginous present.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Maine and Key West, Florida
Date of Birth:September 8, 1947
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., American University, 1969; M.A., University of Connecticut, 1970
Read an Excerpt
LaVerdere's Leading Lights, a.k.a. The Honor Society. There were many organizations for overachievers at Bailey Academy, but being selected for LaVerdere's group gave them nicknames and an identity. They belonged to him. And, very important, he was more young than old. At Bailey, some students' studies involved an emphasis on mathematics (the Math Majors Club was their Honor Society; its members were known informally as The Brains). There was little gossip about Dr. Timothy Ha, who was in charge of that particular club. He looked right through you outside of class, hurrying, always hurrying toward his flashy red sports car. Dr. Ha was a teetotaler. The Brains spread the word that LaVerdere gave the Honor Society students wine. He didn't. It was sparkling nonalcoholic cider. LaVerdere had gone to Columbia, then Oxford. The persistent rumor was that he'd had a wife who'd died of pneumonia in England.
An hour or so before, Ben had gone with Jasper (sulking, in the backseat) and Jasper's father, Mr. Cabot, to pick up Jasper's new drug prescription. In math class, as he'd studied the computation on the blackboard, Jasper had "seen something" and stood up to whirl along with the 3-D vision. Jesus. Ben could understand how they could be a pain in the ass. Dr. Ha was certainly not up to even the most exquisitely polite human interaction, let alone a student's going Sufi on him in class. When they'd returned, there'd been a very awkward moment when The Man had second thoughts after dropping them off; he'd pulled on the handbrake, jumped out of the car, and blurted, "Jasper, I'm just so sorry, so really sorry, that your mother and I couldn't work things out. If I'd known about the breast cancer I'd never have left. It's your mother who won't have me back."
Jasper had pushed the bag he was holding toward Ben as if it had suddenly become too heavy. Then he'd stepped forward and awkwardly embraced his father before turning and running onto the campus. Talk about being left holding the bag. "It's okay," Ben had said lamely to Jasper's father. "Good to see you, Mr. C. Okay, well, see you again, then. Okay." The Man had said nothing; he'd only pressed his palms to his eyes before jumping through the still-open car door into the driver's seat and racing away. His hat lay on the ground. Jesus, what had The Man been thinking, wearing a beret with a white shirt and sweatpants? Ben had picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket. At some opportune moment-though when could that possibly be?-he'd return it.
When Ben and Jasper walked into the Honor Society meeting, LaVerdere was already holding forth: "Talk's overrated. We see an example of this in our current president, George W. Bush, who cannot articulate a comprehensible thought-though politicians who preceded him, such as the estimable Gerald Ford, who pardoned President Richard M. Nixon, were notorious for actually falling on their asses." LaVerdere's hands shot into the air.
Oh, the guy could be excruciating-as could anyone whose in-jokes were primarily with himself. Those fey gestures! The way his chin jutted out parodically. His heart was in the right place, though, and he aimed to please at the "social" (as he was amused to call it), where Tessie Ryall and her daughter, Binnie, who (as LouLou observed) might have been Dickens characters, ferried trays to and fro. No saltines that shattered like glass when rubbery cheese squares were placed atop them; that was the math club's bad luck. As everyone knew, Dr. Ha cared nothing about food.
Today there were also enormous purple seedless grapes-a nod, perhaps, to their recent discussion of Cesar Chavez. LaVerdere gestured. As Tessie and Binnie exited the kitchen carrying trays, LaVerdere lowered his voice and suggested that the coffee they were about to be served was sure to be made from freshly roasted beans from an impeccably run Brazilian organic farm too obscure to have been found even by dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Considering that LaVerdere seemed to like to hang out with them, there were endless things they didn't know about him, and even the boldest hesitated to ask. Who were his friends? What did he do in the summer? No teacher had his or her age listed in the faculty directory, so there was no way to check that. Almost every teacher and staff member used an informal snapshot. Dr. Ha was the only one who'd used a formal photograph. Jasper had discovered that the photograph LaVerdere used was Spalding Grey's. It had crossed Ben's mind, the first day he'd met him, that LaVerdere might be gay, though nothing would easily explain him. Ben had never met anyone who seemed so energetic, yet gave off no sexual vibe. It was LouLou-during one of their late-night talks-who'd been smart enough to add, "except toward himself." They agreed, though: LaVerdere was straight. The only thing Ben had ever seen LaVerdere put the moves on was a box turtle he'd been intent on saving from a riding mower.
A conversation had begun between Aqua and LaVerdere. The subject seemed to be whether things that were enigmatic held more fascination than things transparent-the question being: Might we be impressed by having to figure something out, while sometimes failing to appreciate equally important ideas merely because they seemed so accessible?
"What would be an example?" Ben asked LaVerdere. He didn't want to ask Aqua, because she construed every question as a quiz and talked until she ran out of information. She'd grown up in D.C. Her father had been ambassador to Belgium. The year before, he'd given a talk at Bailey about the Walloons, which had been informative not so much because of the subject, but because it explained the way Aqua could focus your attention on her, rather than her topic. Her real name was Aquinnah, which they knew to call her when her father visited.
"Whether willing, but not rigorously trained civilians should be granted their wish to be launched into space," LaVerdere replied.
It was absolutely impossible to outguess the guy.
"So would that be analogous to really bright kids who've screwed up being sent to a New England boarding school?" Hailey asked.
"Has that happened?" Phillip Collins asked, his voice drowning her out. He stopped plugging grapes into his mouth long enough to speak. He hovered behind Ben.
"Indeed it has. I refer to the situation of the very wealthy, accomplished private citizen Dennis Tito. Surely someone has heard of Mr. Tito?"
No one answered.
"Ah. Well, he recently became the world's first space tourist. This was very exciting to Mr. Tito, if not to you. He was a former NASA employee who followed the money. He left his job there and became an investment manager, I believe. But he wanted to orbit the Earth, not sit behind a desk. While he was no doubt qualified in his areas of expertise, Mr. Tito's wishes caused a howl of objection. A mere businessman, in space? The U.S. wouldn't do it-and we might later discuss whether this was a brave and noble refusal on principle, or yet another ill-considered bureaucratic decision. So he appealed to the Russians. Mr. Tito spent seven days, twenty-two hours, and some minutes in space. He did this because it was his passion, and perhaps with an eye toward how it could improve his business in the future-this was what others hinted at, though not Mr. Tito. Primarily"-(who but LaVerdere began any sentence with the word "primarily"?)-"he was able to do this because he was rich. Here's my question: Do you think a lottery should have been held, or do you think the rich are entitled to special privileges? Remember that we live in a democracy, or an ostensible democracy. It's an interesting question, though Mr. Tito has orbited Earth a hundred and twenty-eight times, whatever we decide."
"Rich guys pretty much get to do what they want, don't they?" Aqua said. "Isn't the question more who'd stop them?"
"Perhaps, but let's first consider this from the perspective of Mr. Tito-a man of means who quite simply wants something. Do we find it important to know if what he wants is for personal benefit or the benefit of others? Would knowing that change our minds about his trip?"
"How do we know a person to be egalitarian?" Akemi Hayashi-Myers asked. Since she always answered her own questions, or tried to, there was a pause. She said, "Because we observe their lifelong actions. We cannot just accept their self-regard."
For a while, LouLou Sils, who was hands down the coolest girl at school, with her fantastic chocolate-brown hair and white skin, had amused them behind Akemi's back with a good imitation of her, but their new classmate (who'd joined them only the year before) had grown on them. The moment Akemi spoke, she became less shy. She'd befriended Darius Beltz, which no one else had made much of an attempt to do, and LouLou's gentle chiding was now directed at Akemi. Akemi was no longer shocked if you linked arms with her as you walked from building to building. She'd learned to come up beside people expectantly.
"You mean, like, in space he's going to discover something that leads to the cure for cancer?" Phillip Collins said.
Ben was glad Jasper hadn't yet wandered over to join in. His mother's breast cancer, stage three, was a topic he didn't want to discuss and one that he couldn't avoid; the mention of cancer would have lit Jasper with worry.
"A good question, Phillip," LaVerdere replied. He always commended Phillip Collins when he spoke, because others so rarely did. "What if he believes this might be helpful in that pursuit, or what if he's simply invoking that attitude in order to add legitimacy to what he wishes to do? We think we understand someone's reason for a particular act, but we also have to rely on what we know of precedent, hmm? You'll all remember making fun of me for my deeply held belief that the world is inherently an individual, subjective experience-though we must nevertheless strive to understand it in objective terms. Mr. Tito might be quite straightforward in what he says, but even then, there's the question of what he tells himself versus what is, more objectively, the case."
"Crime and Punishment," Benson Whitaker said. "That book's flypaper. Any idea you toss out sticks to it. The thing we're really always talking about is Crime and Punishment."
"I promise not to mention it," LaVerdere said. "Ben-any thoughts?"
"Why haven't any of us heard of him?"
"I knew about it. I just didn't know his name," Aqua said. "There was a story on NPR a while ago. Somebody's making a documentary." She turned to look at Jasper, who had just joined the group.
"Is that right?" LaVerdere said. "I didn't know that, but I suppose it seems inevitable."
"Rich people get news coverage for things that ordinary people-even though there's no such thing as an ordinary person-have no access to," Jasper said.
"Notice that we keep circling the issue of wealth," LaVerdere said. "Would we be more interested if the nonexistent ordinary man-or woman-was plucked from the street in Manhattan and sent into orbit? Might we think we'd find out something from him or her that would be precluded from the perspective of a man who belongs to the upper class?"
"To be honest, I don't get the feeling any of us care about this guy," Jasper said. "I don't think space travel is all that fascinating. I mean, maybe it-"
"Ah. Then does this become a generational question? If Mr. Tito had gone into space, say, during the time Henry Ford was developing the automobile, or even thirty years ago-let's make it more recent-might we have been quite interested, then, perhaps even staging a parade upon his return?"
"They didn't even do that for Vietnam vets. It was supposed to freak them out because of their PTSD," Aqua said. "That, or people who didn't fight felt too guilty to beat the drums and throw confetti. So if we don't acknowledge people who fought for our country, or for all of us, supposedly, why get all excited about some millionaire who goes into space?"
If Crime and Punishment was LaVerdere's favorite text, Aqua's was Dispatches, by Michael Herr. This was apparent not only to Ben, but to everyone. Like information revealed by the depth and configuration of lines in the palm of the hand, knowing a person's favorite book was informative. Akemi Hayashi-Myers liked Dostoyevsky (in particular, Notes from the Underground). She'd skipped two grades, but Mr. Myers felt his daughter should spend another year with classmates closer to her own age before accepting early admission to Princeton.
"You don't really care about him, do you, Mr. LaVerdere?" Hailey asked. It was a very Hailey sort of remark; she often perceived a basic flaw in a question. The rest of them tended to try to avoid that quagmire-pointing out the invisible-with LaVerdere, who was excited to the point of distraction by any mention of things unseen.
"Whatever my feelings about him, Mr. Tito is a case in point," LaVerdere said. "Though you're prescient in understanding that, to me, he's just an example of something and someone."
"Not to his mother!" Jasper said. He'd been hovering at the edge of the group and had finally poured himself a glass of seltzer. He knew he'd gotten off a good one. As he stifled a belch, he nudged Ben's shoulder.
"Remember 'The Lady, or The Tiger?'" LaVerdere asked. "Do you think anything about that pertains?"
"Not unless they're debating whether to put more millionaires into space or a bunch of ladies," Hailey said.
"Have I presented all of you with an insurmountable obstacle in mentioning Mr. Tito's financial situation?"
"In your case? If I can turn it around and ask you to go on record, Mr. LaVerdere? You should probably take the lady. Because like Blake said-make that 'as Blake said'-the jury's out on fearful symmetry," Aqua said.
Aqua got thinner and thinner and wore baggy clothes to hide the weight loss. Aqua was human Velcro, her words the tiny loops she hoped would attach her to whomever she'd cornered. Ben and Jasper agreed that you could almost see her thinking, her eyes locked on the distance like someone peeing in a pool. She'd been expelled from Simon's Rock for a mysterious offense she found too painful to discuss. That was something you could allude to if you needed to silence her, like a little verbal crack chunk put in an addict's palm, or a bit of Kryptonite presented to Superman. Phillip Collins's uncle was dating a teacher at Aqua's former school, and he'd promised to sniff around and try to find out what Aqua's offense had been, though it had happened before his girlfriend was hired.