Remembering Alison

A writer who relished the extremes in life and found humor in the darkest regions

Alison Lurie in 2003 (Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo)
Alison Lurie in 2003 (Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo)

Back in Key West for the first time since June 2020, when my husband and I were finally able to fly out, I saw on my shelves some books by my late friend Alison Lurie, took them down, and perused them again. Random House had brought out her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but these books were all published by small presses. We’d heard her read from one of them at the local Books & Books a few years ago.

In the early days of Covid, I had to cancel a long-standing lunch invitation from Alison. She was aghast. Either she disbelieved the frantic reports about Covid’s circulation, or she just didn’t want to acknowledge them, even though she was getting groceries delivered (she was particularly incensed that every time she ordered butter, she got, instead, a product called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, which was not butter). It was difficult for me to insist that getting together for lunch was unsafe, and while she didn’t wear me down, I wore myself down: Well, why not one last lunch? In fact, it was the last one we ever had together. My husband and I soon left the island; she and her husband, Edward Hower, left a few days later.

We didn’t talk much about Covid at lunch. Alison had prepared a great quantity of food, as if afterward we might hibernate for the winter. Maybe the aroma got Edward out of his writing room, but in any case, he joined us for much of the time. On the wide deck that stretched between their house and their guest house, where others would have put in a gigantic pool, was a large leaning tree. Of course, Alison wouldn’t have a lavish swimming pool. Instead, she liked to sneak into one of the pools at the Casa Marina hotel to swim laps, already wearing her sensible one-piece black bathing suit, goggles in hand. I’m not kidding: I think Alison believed that this was a constructive solution to boredom, the same way she thought the expense of maintaining a pool was unnecessary and impractical, considering the alternatives.

One of the most generous people I’ve ever known—spontaneously generous—Alison herself was nothing if not practical. But within that practicality, she appreciated provocateurs. Nothing would please her more than hearing about something mischievous someone had done. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell whether she was motivated by her own impish spirit, or simply eccentric. At the Thirsty Mermaid, a restaurant well known for its seafood, she once asked about the day’s oyster selection and decided on (let’s say) the Apalachicola. She ordered one. It was served centered on a mountain of shaved ice, in which were sunk two small condiment dishes, as well as a slice of lemon. Obviously, it took me a lot longer to finish my lunch than it took Alison. She offered me her slice of lemon, in case I wanted more in my iced tea.

What we mostly talked about, though, was books; when we parted, she often headed off to her home away from home, the Key West library. Every book she told me to read, I got. I didn’t always agree with her recommendations, but our reading tastes weren’t very divergent. She was the one who introduced me to so many English writers. She had a flat in London and enjoyed a much greater reputation in the U.K. than she did in the U.S., once the excitement of winning the Pulitzer—the excitement of others, I mean—wore off. She told me to read more David Lodge than the one book I knew. She recommended the Irish writer John Banville long before his work was well known here. She enthused, in her understated yet emphatic way, about Jon McGregor’s amazing Reservoir 13 and brought it to me the next morning. She loved the writing of Louise Erdrich and Lorrie Moore (a former student), and wished that her former Cornell colleague A. R. (“Archie”) Ammons would win a significant prize, because “it would make him so happy.”

While visiting, she often knitted. I have more than one knitted hot pad made by Alison. In her will, she left me a painting. I’d never seen it before, but Edward tells me they had more than one painting by the artist, and I’ve decided that she gave it to me because she knew I loved flowers (as she did, though supermarket bouquets were all you’d find in her house, those times it wasn’t simply a plucked branch or two of bougainvillea, which is the psychedelic ivy of Key West.)

Alison loved Key West. There’s “old Key West” and, of course, the new. She knew both better than most, because she walked (or attempted to walk) the entire island. But there’s also the old Key West captured in photographs in which she’s usually the only (or almost the only) woman present. James Merrill was her great friend—she wrote a fascinating memoir, called (punningly) Familiar Spirits, much devoted to Merrill and David Jackson and their summoning of the otherworldly on the Ouija board. There was a time when Key West was known for its male writers and Elizabeth Bishop was one of the very few exceptions—I don’t think she and Alison overlapped. Then, as Rust Hills, former fiction editor at Esquire, once said, in his abrupt way of categorizing what he assumed was obvious: “Now it’s all the women.” (Annie Dillard; Nancy Friday; Phyllis Rose; Joy Williams, who was married to Rust; Barbara Ehrenreich; Judy Blume; Alison herself.)

Alison was always so happy to return to Key West for the winter. She’d put on her straw sunhat, take out her sandals, put on a frumpy-chic, light cotton dress, and head off for the day’s adventures. The town’s craziness suited her, but as a watcher, rather than a participant. She did not (to my knowledge) jet ski or ride on the back of motorcycles or—this I can attest to—go to “bottomless mimosa” brunches. Those things are the tourist’s experience. Hers was the practical person’s Key West: grocery shopping on the highway (where she bought the right butter); walking miles, unnoticed, when Edward was at the gym; inviting family and friends to escape winter.

She had a way of blurting out one explosive “Aah!” when hearing about some writer’s foibles or wild eccentricities, though never as a value judgment. I think she assumed that many writers were needy, some unfairly neglected, others foolish in their decisions. She enjoyed being taken aback, but only for a second, and it did not affect her view of anyone’s work or purported maturity. She recognized the human fallibility in others. She also had a great sense of humor that often came at you double pronged: a stunningly astute observation that was inherently, sometimes wickedly funny, delivered with no expression but—on rare occasions—an “mmm” added to the end of a sentence: Alison agreeing with herself.

Often, reading her work, I conjure up that “mmm.” Did anything slip past her? She was so judicious in what she said, though; no one thought of her as a big talker, let alone a raconteur. She was rarely dying to tell you what absurdity or atrocity she’d seen while out walking (few friends knew about her walking project); she didn’t complain (well: maybe sometimes in her fiction, which critics liked to categorize as “satirical.”) Here’s a passage from her book Reading for Fun—which comes from a talk she’d given earlier at the Anthony Powell Society meeting in 2009: “Many writers of fiction practice a kind of housekeeping that is rare in life; they follow what might be called the Law of Economy of Persons. In the real world, more than half of one’s current acquaintances are of little or no significance. Not only are they not destined to become close friends, enemies, rivals or relatives—they do not even exemplify a type.” By contrast, Alison continues, in 19th- and early-20th century fiction, “everyone the hero or heroine meets is significant.” She includes Powell (not yet famous) as working in this tradition, which leads her to observe, about his characters, that “no one is ever wholly lost.”

From the brief passage I’ve quoted, you sense Alison’s wry eye, her direct approach. This “Law of the Economy of Persons” might put some readers on guard, but it’s delivered tongue-in-cheek. Is it just because I knew Alison that I smile when I read another tossed-off assumption that more than half of our acquaintances don’t really matter much? I mean, we might think that, but how often would we admit it? Yet probably many would agree, though it can’t make us comfortable to consider all the unimportant people in our lives. Still, what I immediately sense in her essays is the writer’s confidence, her wish to be thought both commonsensical (delivering information ne’er so well expressed, I’d say) but also casual, meaning unthreatening.

Now I’m back in Key West without Alison, who died in 2020 at 94. No more oysters atop a mound of ice made more mysterious by the bivalve mollusk’s odd presence, plunked down as if it had fallen from the sky, not emerged from the sea. No more New York rendezvous, no more easy, quickly recited recipes she thought I’d enjoy preparing. I’ll always be thankful for her brilliant coaching on how to be more likely to get my way in committee meetings. Every time I reread Alison’s work, I’m amazed all over again at the breadth of her knowledge, and impressed by how smoothly, in her fiction, she presented dichotomies, conundrums, and absurdities, so that they came to take on a kind of grace. I think all those curves and reversals came together perfectly under the guidance of her pen. Yup, no kidding: everything was handwritten first, before she typed the manuscript into her computer. If she’d been an ice skater rather than a swimmer, she’d have looped through a perfect figure 8, just like the symbol for infinity.

In her New York Times obituary, she was called “an anthropologist of contemporary absurdity.” That’s not at all wrong—in fact, it’s right—but it makes me think that absurdity was only her jumping-off point, and that by presenting her characters’ vanities and contradictions, their neuroses, their misperceptions and foibles, she insisted upon confronting messy reality at the same time she found a way to present what she understood without exasperation or world weariness, but as someone who delighted in extremes and found flicks of humor in tragedy. In her nonfiction books, such as Reading for Fun, Words and Worlds, The Language of Clothes, and The Language of Houses (the publication of which was aided by her friend Edmund White), she was drawn to what was apparent, yet—to state the obvious—it was only apparent to her. Her x-ray vision permeated façades, though it was her sense of humor that made her erect them again, just a little more fancifully.

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Ann Beattie, a contributing editor of the Scholar, has published 20 novels and short story collections. She is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for the Short Story. Her work appears in five O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies as well as in Best American Short Stories of the Century.


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