Looking Back on Charles Baxter

My review of Gryphon, Charles Baxter‘s retrospective collection of short stories, appears in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. One point I make is Baxter stands alone among short-story writers—if it’s hard to find anybody he’s clearly influenced (Stuart Dybek, kinda), neither does his work evoke the names of influential writers who were around as he was coming up in the 70s and 80s (John Cheever, sorta). You can see shades of Breece Pancake in Wells Tower, or William Trevor in Yiyun Li, but Baxter is pretty much Baxter. Many of his characters have at least a touch of emotional (if not mental) instability, I write, and Baxter “has this territory to himself because it is so difficult to create—a lesser writer might take this material and apply the arid ironies of dirty realism or make these hard-luck characters unsympathetic.”

The stories in Gryphon work in large part because Baxter is so masterful at controlling tone—crucial in stories like these, where characters’ emotions shift rapidly. In “The Old Murderer,” a man is fixated is on his new neighbor, a recently paroled murderer, but he’s uncertain whether his interest is unseemly or a product of, as they say these days, an abundance of caution. He visits his sister and her partner to play cards (oh, how Baxter loves cards, standard deck and Tarot alike, little slips of fatalism), and they wrap up with this exchange:

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. A paroled murderer has moved in next to me.”

“Is he nice?” Kate asked.

“I don’t know,” Ellickson told her. “I can’t tell yet. He works all day in his garden and then he disappears.”

“A murderer next door?” Irena said, putting away the deck of cards. “In Russia, this is not unusual.”

Following a series of scenes in which Ellickson is anxious about the man next door, this comes off as broad comedy: The faux-casual way he brings up the murderer, the absurd question Kate asks in response (which is the price he pays for being faux-casual), Irena’s own statement, which ends the section on a laugh line. But the little exchange also complicates the story, allowing the possibility of normalcy for this parolee and drawing a bright line under Ellickson’s obsession over him—two things that will make the story as heartbreaking as it is by the time the story ends.

One story I wish I could’ve found a way to neatly summarize for print is “The Cures for Love,” in which a classics scholar attempts to clear her head after a breakup by hopping a local bus in Chicago and taking it wherever it goes. She’s too much of an academic observer—and too aware of her heartbreak—to take much comfort in this aimlessness, though: “No one with a serious relationship with money rode a bus like this at such a time. It was the fuck-up express.” What she does take comfort in is Ovid’s poetry, which echoes in her head as she winds up at the airport to people-watch. When that trip proves to do more harm than good, she retreats again into Ovid, imagining his “I-know-it-all syntax and tone” retooled for her needs:

An airport! Didn’t I tell you,
to shun such spots? A city park on a warm
Sunday afternoon wouldn’t be as bad….

Thank you (he said)
for reading me, but for the sake
of your own well-being, don’t go there
again without a ticket.

By story’s end, she’s not much more stable than she was when she started—she’s still on the fuck-up express—but she at least has a better sense of her destination.

None of which is to say that Baxter is a comic writer, but he’s interested in human foibles in a way that avoids either somber judgment or satire. What’s fun about reading Gryphon start to finish, its stories arranged chronologically, is seeing how his skills grew and his characters grew up; the young parents and singletons of his early stories mature into divorcees and professionals, but they never lose that nagging feeling that something’s gone wrong in their lives. One of my favorite lines in the entire book comes from “Mr. Scary”: “With grown children of his own, and his own sorrows—his wife had pitched herself through a window eight stories up two months after learning that she had inoperable cancer—Randall had every right to be moody, or grumpy at times.” What a thing to stuff between em-dashes! Try to stuff, anyhow: The urge to push things away and the way they keep welling up regardless are trademarks of Baxter’s work, and he’s only gotten better at it as he’s gone along.

6 thoughts on “Looking Back on Charles Baxter

  1. Baxter’s always been one of my favorite writers, and you’re absolutely right that he’s – not exactly flown under the radar, but certainly not quite entered the discussion to the extent that he probably should. I also find him a surprisingly smooth read for a guy so gifted. Like the best story tellers, he makes all the hard work invisible and the heavy lifting effortless.

    1. Thanks, Josh! If I recall correctly, you were the person who introduced me to Baxter by enthusiastically recommending “The Feast of Love.” Which I will, in turn, enthusiastically recommend, though I haven’t given much thought to how/if his novels are distinct from his short stories—I haven’t read enough of the former to judge.

  2. I think Baxter’s essays on fiction, mostly the ones collected in Burning Down the House, are pretty fantastic for readers who want to understand how good fiction is made. His other one, the Art of Subtext, is a little more technical.

  3. The review and this post have convinced me to check Baxter out. Would Gryphon be the place to start, since it has a nice overview of his work or would you recommend an earlier story collection or novel?

    1. Gryphon has a nice broad scope, and it collects the excellent recent stories that haven’t appeared in other books. But I like the subtlety of the stories in his first collection, “Harmony of the World,” especially the title story. “The Feast of Love” is excellent as well. I keep meaning to get to “Saul and Patsy,” which has been recommended to me many times. Same goes for his essays on fiction writing that another commenter recommended.

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