‘Jacklighting’ by Ann Beattie: Short Story Analysis
Jacklighting’ is a post-modernist realistic short story penned by American author Professor Ann Beattie. Ann Beattie has received an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story form. She has penned many short stories written in an almost psychedelic way about people trying to grapple with the events happening in their lives. In ‘Jacklighting’, the short story’s main character is a deceased artistic, creative, and sensitive man called Nicholas. He is already dead from a truck accident, and a few of his friends, including the author, have arrived at his brother’s house to celebrate Nicholas’ birthday. We see flashes of the person Nicholas was throughout the story and the workings of the minds of these thirty-something adults who were a significant part of Nicholas’ life. We see them through colored slides. Ann Beattie shows them to us through different points of view, her unique post-modernist style of writing. Beattie creatively dissects the unique characteristics of her counter-culture characters: Spence, Pammy, Wynn, Nicholas, and the narrator, who is the girlfriend of Wynn. Beattie holds up these dissected pieces to us to dwell on and examine. It is a unique way of looking at a story different from the usual regular deadpan stories of cause and effect.
This story’s title is found only in the very last line and word when Spence, who is Nicholas’ brother, finds that people are jacklighting on his property. The action or practice of using a jacklight to illuminate, attract, dazzle, or mesmerize game, especially deer or fish, when hunting or fishing at night is called jacklighting. This idea came to Spence because the truck driver who killed his brother thought Nicholas was a deer. Therefore, it implies that probably either the driver himself was jacklighting or other hunters were jacklighting in the vicinity, which disturbed the deer in the area. Thus, the drunk truck driver saw a deer when Nicholas’ Harley bike came in front of him and not a young man on his motorcycle. Nicholas pays a heavy price for taking his Harley out that night because he has a terrible accident where he goes brain dead and passes away after a year. There is a haunting quality to Nicholas’ death on Spence, his brother, and all the friends. We see these people lifeless and aimless as if Nicholas was the driving force in their lives. We notice that after Nicholas’ death, the characters are behaving in the following manner:
- Spence spends most of his time, especially in the hot weather preparing jams in bottles. He has also got into a relationship with a woman called Pammy from Washington who is studying to be a doctor, and the two of them don’t exactly see eye to eye. Spence tries a lot to lie about Pammy’s age while Pammy feels that Spence does not like her because she was an addict to ‘speed’. She probably means that she was addicted to Speed methamphetamine, a potent and addictive central nervous system stimulant chemically related to amphetamine.
- Pammy is perhaps taking her relationship with Spence as a holiday from her studies. She remembers that she was an addict and had a terrible crisis during the Summer of 1967. That Summer, she slept with a stockbroker to earn money, watched many horror movies, and was underground all the time. The author of this story seems to take easily to Pammy because she fancies people who have made radical changes to their lives.
- Wynn is the boyfriend of the author. He is having a mid-life crisis because he believes he is in love with one of his students who are way younger than him. He only thinks of sex most of the time and is playful. He doesn’t respect the author and shares a strange bonhomie with her in the way he would share with a male friend. They play catch and baseball with each other. If one reads the short story, it is difficult to identify whether the narrator of this psychedelic story is a man or a woman. When we are told about the lobster claw necklace and about Wynn being in love with a young student, we realize that the narrator is a woman.
- Nicholas is dead; however, his memory lives in the lives of his close friends who meet to celebrate his birthday. Nicholas was a creative dreamer who saw magic in everything and everyone. On the day he was hit by the truck, the fatal accident occurred because Nicholas was not wearing a helmet. He had used his helmet to make a treasure nest of things to amuse a four-year-old child while he was babysitting. Due to him not wearing his helmet, he suffers a skull injury and goes into a coma. Nicholas was a person who looked at life through rose-tinted glasses. He was always happy but reflective. He was an acid user, loved to go on vacations, gave his friends advice, and loved to amuse everyone in his unique way. He was indeed the central focus of this circle of friends and is even in death, the short story protagonist.
Nicholas was a creative soul. We see this when he gifts a lobster claw necklace to the author or narrator of this story. He also teaches his friends a fun but simple game where they have to close their eyes and imagine what they had last seen in front of them. The narrator mentions that she always saw darkness but her boyfriend Wynn and Nicholas would still see the distinct shapes and features of the things seen last by them with their eyes open. Through these jottings of the narrator, we know Nicholas’s gentle spirit, who was a fun-loving but reflective person.
Several beautiful descriptions and lines in this story bring out these otherwise laid-back characters’ core feelings. One of them is how the friends see Nicholas’ comatose body in the hospital and realize that the intravenous line attached to him was not going to feed him to bring him back to them. The narrator or author only then realizes that Nicholas was lost to them for good. There is also a mention of the treasure nest that Nicholas made with his helmet for the four-year-old. When the helmet was being given to his friends and brother Spence, they felt that they were holding a:
- Time bomb
- An aquarium where a loved dear fish was lying on its side, floating dead on top of the water.
- An ugly scar unwound of its gauze.
However, the contents of that helmet were looked at nevertheless giving the friends and brother of Nicholas a lasting image of what was on Nicholas’ mind before he died:
- Dried chrysanthemums.
- A robin’s half blue eggshell.
- Cats eye marble.
- Yellow twine.
- A sprig of grapes.
- Piece of a broken ruler.
These treasures tell us more about the gentle soul that Nicholas was, and that was why he deserved to be remembered even after his death, especially on his birthday. That is why his friends Wynn and the narrator travel from Hoboken to Virginia to be with Spence on his brother’s birthday.
There is the symbol of the lemon tree with the heavy lemon in the story. That is to signify that the weakest fruit had to drop to the ground and die early, just like Nicholas did. Earlier, the friends symbolized the lemon tree with growth, when the lemon tree was more a symbol for death. One last piece of information about Nicholas’ person was that he focused on the intricate parts of existence. We see this in the presents he used to get, which he used to love to use in a specific manner the way a little child would use.
The story ends without the constructions of a typical time frame; the story goes beyond time. It highlights how physically close these friends were to Nicholas even when they used to sit on his Harley. According to the narrator, she loved to feel the touch of everyone’s bodies sandwiched together on the Harley. That is a familiar feeling of many younger people where their friends are concerned, which is understandable. However, people forget this innocent pleasure of physical closeness when they grow up. The narrator never forgot it, and so would always remember Nicholas.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story for you here on my blog. I hope to read more short stories by American writers in the coming days. I am focusing on American writers till the 3rd of November, keeping in mind the elections that are going on in America, probably the most critical election of our time. I hope to read and review books penned by American novelists, non-fiction writers, and short story writers. Just keep watching this page for more information. Celebrate the American spirit of Halloween this year 2020. Celebrate it by reading a classic which I have abridged with my colleague Michaelangelo Zane. The horror classic is part of our Rare Classics series and is titled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Please pick up your copy of this Halloween classic on the products page of my blog today.
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