Over the course of his career, Charles Baxter has carved out a niche for himself as the unofficial poet laureate of the upper Midwest, capturing the suburbs of Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois with muted grace.
For all his decidedly average characters, though, and easy, unselfconscious prose, Baxter’s work has an eerie unreality to it. In less-skilled hands, these insistently relatable stories, scrubbed clean of “grit” or “edge,” would seem insipidly folksy. Here, though, the result of Baxter’s relentless craftsmanship is a kind of trademark understatement, quietly unsettling—everyday life abstracted into something like prayer.
Baxter’s stories pivot on near-misses. Throughout the works collected here—from Baxter’s earliest pieces, reanthologized, to the seven newly published in this volume—the drama hinges on the possibility of connection, either by love or by violence. With a kind of Protestant restraint, however, the fire rarely sparks. Death and disaster lurk in the margins—a suicidal gesture, a loaded gun and, repeatedly, an uninvited stranger—but Baxter refuses such decisive resolution in the body of his texts. If the stories are unsettling, it is because of what doesn’t happen.
Many are family portraits: husbands and wives in various stages of marriage and divorce, parents taking care of children and, sometimes, adult children caring for their aging parents. “Surprised by Joy,” one of the smaller stories in the collection, and among the most devastating, gives us the moment when a couple mourning the loss of their daughter find themselves no longer united by grief. “Fensted’s Mother,” a sort of meditation on goodness, follows the evolving relationship between a kindly mother and her middle-aged son.
The strangers, when they appear, are less mysterious than haunting. In “The Disappeared,” a Swedish businessman in search of an American affair picks up an ethereal woman in a Detroit park. “My soul is radioactive… It’s like plutonium,” she tells him. “Don’t say you weren’t warned.” Afterwards, after she has vanished, mid-second-date, after he has found himself alone in the city ER, “he felt that he must get home to Sweden quickly, before he became a very different person, unrecognizable even to himself.”
The premise echoes through the collection, variations on a theme. A otherwordly stranger with an “Eric Clapton-ish face” shows up in the house of a young single mother in “Ghosts”; the title story, “Gryphon,” features a fortune-telling substitute teacher; “Shelter” centers around an almost-destabilizing encounter with a homeless man. And yet, for all their mysticism, Baxter’s stories resist easy epiphanies. When the collection is over, we are left with a transcendental sense of melancholy, not a moral. (Rachel Sugar)
“Gryphon: New and Selected Stories”
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon, $27.95, 416 pages