It is one of Ben’s many jobs in this slow-motion coming-of-age novel “to write code helpful for running the numbers for companies considering expansion and, basically, to test and to extend other coders’ work.” And of one of the many women he has sex with, this one “too young, but she was legal … he was never sure if she was asking him to decode the world or code it.”

To code or decode, to decipher meaning or give it a form, seems to be Ben’s task and his dilemma in “A Wonderful Stroke of Luck,” the 21st book by the inimitable Ann Beattie — and one he never accomplishes, the world being what it is.

Ben, whom we first encounter as a teenager at an elite New Hampshire boarding school “for bright, screwed-up kids,” is a sort of Holden Caulfield for our (or his) day, harboring a sad kind of craziness, as sharply observant as he is lost, as he negotiates an uncertain world — whose uncertainty comes into acute focus after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A guide in this endeavor — one whom Holden would undoubtedly brand a “phony” — is teacher Pierre LaVerdere, whose honor society at Bailey Academy, the Leading Lights, Ben belongs to, and whose influence he never really shakes.

When we meet Ben’s schoolmates — a Breakfast Club of misfits for the moneyed millennial set — they are being nudged, by LaVerdere, to debate whether “willing, but not rigorously trained civilians,” like “the very wealthy, accomplished private citizen Dennis Tito,” should be granted their wish to be launched into space.

The question circles again and again to wealth and privilege — but the real debate, like the coding problem at the center of the book, comes down to the difference between the Lockean and Jeffersonian ideas of basic rights, the pursuit of happiness or the pursuit of property, respectively.

As Ben enacts this debate, navigating the murky waters of adulthood, LaVerdere is a frequent reference, supplying insights of often dubious merit (“If your knowledge is insufficient, rely on your intuition,” for example) — until he pops up in person, with terrible news that ties him to Ben’s other, subtler and sweeter influence, his stepmother Elin, whose guidance runs more to matters of carefulness and manners.

Elin had told him, Ben remembers, “to walk on the outside when he was walking on a sidewalk alongside a woman,” for instance. But “Which side should you be on when you were on a path in the woods?” he wonders, then riffs a bit, following a pattern typical of his narration and Beattie’s writing with its clever rhythm of observation, reflection and speculation that disorients us even as it seems to be moving us forward.

Thus, sometimes feeling as aimless as Ben himself, as he goes from Bailey to Cornell to various jobs and liaisons and girlfriends, “A Wonderful Stroke of Luck” puts us in its well-meaning but hapless protagonist’s position — moving ahead, not necessarily getting anywhere, but graced along the way with moments that occasionally confer their own meaning.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches and coaches through the Loft Literary Center website.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
By: Ann Beattie.
Publisher: Viking, 274 pages, $25.