One word to characterize Charles Baxter’s fiction is “haunting.” The potential for surreality of his stories drives a contemporary reader of late realist fiction mad with wonder—in a word, haunted. Continuing his rich and varied body of work comes Gryphon, the just published collection of new and selected stories. I believe Frank O’Connor said he felt horrible for any writer whose work was subjected to such a collection. Perhaps he was right, but the opportunity to give a general interpretation of Baxter’s work is too good to pass up.
Of course, all the best short story writers haunt the reader. However, the degree to which Baxter’s stories give this effect makes him exceptional. Baxter’s stories truly use the form as it differs from the more plot dependent novel. One reason they’re so intriguing is the immensity of meaning they transmit through their brevity. It’s no wonder Baxter is a former poet, since metaphors in his stories embed less commonplace meaning while leading to more mysterious outcomes, leaving us openly dazzled.
Almost always, an uncommon, defamiliarizing event takes place. In “Royal Blue,” the moment is when the author “sees” spoken words in the color of the story’s title: “Maybe he was tired, or feverish, but he heard her utter the sentence in blue, royal blue, the color of the northern lights and Granny W.’s inscriptions, and he felt himself spiral into light-headedness” (321). Such depictions are risky, even for a seasoned writer such as Baxter, since they run the risk of alienating the reader. But Baxter’s unique subject matter, as he depicts it, only attracts us more to the narrative. The writing is so artistic and coherent, it assures us to wait until the end and even then to wait until the story has gestated after reading. Writing which dares to explore people, places, and ideas opposite from the commonplace, such as this, is the richest, because it resists solution, only giving body to an enigma one can’t readily consume. It haunts us because it tantalizes us with exactly what we as readers don’t immediately recognize.
Baxter comes across as a writer’s writer, especially after taking into account his essays on fiction, some of which appear in the book Burning Down The House. The literary criticism in the book puts Baxter in the ranks of the best scholars. Writing, art, and creation in general often appear as subject matter in his work. Be it storytelling, lying, playing, writing, or remembering, creativity is a significant activity in all these stories. In the new stories, it’s there: in “Poor Devil” with an ex-married couple’s stories to one another, in “Mr. Scary” with the ponderances of a grandchild, folk art in “Royal Blue,” in “The Winner” when a fake hard luck monologue overpowers its audience, in “Ghosts” with the constant lying and imagining (storytelling) of its characters, and in “The Old Murderer” with mind games an ex-con plays on himself in order to survive. With so many variations on the creative act, metafictional intrigues are only the beginning of what the stories offer. Most of all, however, the creative process heals or relieves the characters. It reveals what’s good about people, what is undeniably we ourselves.
Another recurring theme is the occurrence or potential for violence. This potential is usually a reflection of very real violence in American society. His characters are often good, at the very least fairly intelligent, compassionate enough citizens. Actually, this only encourages a more damning judgment of the casual destructive thoughts of the protagonist in “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb”:
On the ceiling the projected sun of Harry’s mind rose wonderfully, brilliantly gold, one or two mind-wisp cumulus clouds passing from right to left across it, but not so obscured that its light could not penetrate the great public building into which men, women, and children—children in strollers, children hand in hand with their parents—now filed, shadows on the ceiling, lighted shadows, and for a moment Harry saw an explosive flash. (243)
The violence in Harry’s imagination is only another force sweeping over him and taking away the control he desires to have over his circumstances. In “Westland,” the protagonist commits an act of victimless terrorism with a gun given to him by his new friend of the working class, literally fulfilling the idea of how guns beseech their users to fire:
here’s a kind of architecture that makes you ashamed of human beings, and in my generic rage, I took the gun and held my arm out of the window. It felt good to do that. I was John Wayne. I fired four times at that building, once for me, once for Ann, and once for each of my boys. (151)
These two stories, in particular, demonstrate everyday Americans becoming caught up in violence. In “Royal Blue,” September 11th looms at the beginning and leads to the story’s title. At this point, however, the 9/11 attack is simply a jolting act of violence without the imperative of retribution. The event has literally and metaphorically cleared the skies, “thanks to the ban on airline travel that had been in effect for the past two weeks. The upper atmospheres had cleared themselves. Deep colors had returned overhead, at least for now.” In this story, violence leads toward an understanding of people, regardless of its perpetrator or motive.
Baxter’s daring methods and striking subject matter exemplify what the author reveals in an interview with Robert Birnbaum in The Morning News, how he breaks all rules in the first draft. His practice shows here and results in a collection that, in reality, does not provide a jumbled pinning down of the writer, as O’Connor would have deplored. Instead, like any one of these stories, it draws the reader closer to the writing and begs him to read the stories not selected for this volume, to wait with bated breath for what this author will write in the future, to remain opened up and awed by the artistic imagination.
About the author:
Ian Singleton has lived all over the United States. He studied at the University of Michigan and Emerson College. Once, he won a Hopwood Award. Several journals have published his works including The Houston Literary Review, qarrtsiluni, Fringe, and Ploughshares. He taught writing at a Massachusetts prison.