February 05, 1990 12:00 PM

They seemed, at first, more likely to kill each other than to marry. When painter Lincoln Perry met writer Ann Beattie through a mutual friend in 1985, he was a literary innocent whose tastes ran to “Jack London stuff,” he says. “You know, man and his dog.” Unaware that the New York Times had dubbed Beattie “the essential literary voice of the generation that came of age in the ’60s,” he found her pared-down tales of angst simply grim—and told her so. “I was in this life-affirming, Zorba the Greek frame of mind,” he says. “I thought she should throw all those depressed characters into relief by writing about someone, well, Zorbatic.”

Beattie—in addition to deciding that Perry dressed like “a scruff ball”—took pleasure in “reading him things I thought were really stark and depressing, the most pessimistic modern fiction I could find, and watching the sweat form on his brow. In general, he was not too keen on me, and I thought he was nasty.”

Somehow it turned into love. For the past year and a half, Beattie, 42, and Perry, 40, have lived together in Charlottesville, Va., as man and wife, a state of affairs that plainly delights them both. “I’m mad about him,” says Beattie. “Without her, I’d probably be a mess,” says Perry, who still takes every opportunity to sneak up on his bride and slip her a kiss.

The relationship appears to be having a salutary effect on their work as well. Perry, whose seventh New York City gallery show is coming up in April, has been receiving many more commissions of late. “It’s been an explosion since he married Ann,” says Peter Tatistcheff, owner of the gallery that shows Perry’s work. “He’s grown much more inventive and spontaneous.” And Beattie’s recently published fourth novel, Picturing Will—title courtesy of Perry—has been praised for its “new and fearless way with emotional complexity” (Newsweek) and has already sold 50,000 copies.

There is more to the Beattie-Perry union, of course, than clashes over art. Those, in fact, have largely ceased. Perry is a self-proclaimed convert to Beattie’s writing style, and Beattie discovered long ago that her husband’s aesthetic vision is not as sunny as he pretended. “He was presenting himself as somebody who does Hallmark cards,” she says. “Then I went to see his paintings, and they were these twisted, agonized people watching a drowning at the beach.”

The couple has in common a passion for work, a sense of humility (“We don’t think our art is going to change the culture, or the world, or much of anything,” says Perry), and—perhaps most important—not the slightest desire to reproduce. Though her new novel is about a child and the forces that shape his life, Beattie says she wrote it “because somehow not having children made it more mysterious, more interesting to look at. I like children, but I’ve never wanted the responsibility of having them. Lincoln is the first person I’ve ever encountered who feels as militantly about that as I do.”

Both Perry and Beattie remember their own childhoods fondly. The much-loved only child of an administrator for HEW and of a housewife, Beattie was brought up in Washington, D.C.—”an artsy little thing,” she says, whose parents encouraged her to read, write stories and draw. Perry’s mother, an actress turned housewife, was equally delighted with what Perry, a native New Yorker, calls his “facility for making things look like things”—though his father, a sound engineer, took little interest. After toying in college with the idea of more secure careers—Beattie considered journalism, Perry academics—both selected paths of high risk. Perry’s large, brightly colored figurative pieces found buyers almost from the start, although he supplemented his income by teaching, at the University of New Hampshire and other colleges, until 1985. Today his paintings sell for $3,000 to $60,000, and his commission work—giant panels for office buildings such as the John Hancock building in Boston—commands as much as $500,000.

Beattie succeeded on an even grander scale. The New Yorker began accepting her stories in 1974, when she was 26, and by 1976 she had published both a novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and a critically acclaimed short-story collection, Distortions. Phrases like “literary voice of her generation” began to be bandied about by the press. (“That produced wild laughter and much joking among my friends, and still does,” she says. “I never considered myself the spokesperson of anything.”)

Her romantic life proceeded less smoothly. In 1972 she married David Gates, a literature student at the University of Connecticut, where Beattie was pursuing a graduate degree. The marriage lasted eight years, and the breakup was painful. “Getting divorced affected everything, my writing included,” she says. “It affected the way I walked the dog. I did not recover from it quickly.”

Nor did she run out and search for a replacement. “Maybe it’s because I was an only child,” she says, “but I sort of like being alone.” When her path and Perry’s finally crossed, neither was inclined toward romance. Beattie had tired of New York City after her apartment was shredded by a subletter’s kittens. (“Everything I owned, including the lamp shades, was shag carpeting,” she says.) Charlottesville, where she had once taught and still had friends, seemed a peaceful alternative—”and an even less likely place to cruise for men than New York,” she observes. Perry was a visiting professor at the University of Virginia and so leery of matrimony that often, in conversation, he said funeral when he meant to say wedding. “I didn’t understand marriage,” he says, “particularly if you don’t want to have children.”

He understands now. In 1986, after a series of fits and starts, he moved into Beattie’s cozy, redbrick house. Soon afterward, he says, “I had an epiphany. I thought, ‘I love Ann, I want to marry her.’ ” (“Not that I got the benefit of this epiphany,” says Beattie.) He mulled it over for two months, then proposed. She, by then, had decided he was “charming,” and accepted. They were married in Maine, wearing T-shirts. They invited three unsuspecting friends to their rented summer house, had a justice of the peace pretend he was stopping by for a drink and proceeded to say their I dos. One guest was so taken aback by the impromptu ceremony that “it took him five days to get composed enough to board a plane back to New York,” says Beattie, with a laugh. “Lincoln and I both like to shock people.”

The life they have made together, however, is hardly a prank a minute. “There’s nothing to do in Charlottesville but work and kiss,” says Perry. “Oh, yes, and we do eat.” They also critique each other’s work. “Lincoln is a great editor,” says Beattie. “I listen to him a lot. And he titles almost everything I write.” She returns the favor by naming many of his paintings. “Ann has a really good eye,” says Perry, who seems not at all daunted by the fact that his wife is more famous than he. “Lincoln is intimidated by no one,” asserts Beattie. “If Lincoln met Satan, he’d ask if it was warm enough for him.”

Clearly the jousting spirit of their courtship has been replaced by domestic harmony. Yet that doesn’t mean the relationship has entirely lost its edge.

“One day last summer, Lincoln came home with this incredibly complex, eight-panel painting he’d roughed in that afternoon,” says Beattie. “It was so traumatic to me that I said, ‘Oh, my God, where’s my typewriter? I must get to work.’ Talk about competition. If someone had come after me with a bullwhip, it wouldn’t have been more convincing.”

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