An Experiment with Wonder

Charles Baxter

While Charles Baxter is probably best known for his best-selling novel The Feast of Love (2000), made into a popular film starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear, the passion he inspires in readers—and in particular in readers who are writers—is focused chiefly upon his short stories. He has himself conceded that it is his favored form:

[I prefer] short stories by a long shot. I feel as if I’m in my family’s house when I’m writing short stories since I know where everything is. I know the logic of them so well. The other thing I like about short stories is that they often depend on characters who act impulsively.

Since 1984, Baxter has published five story collections, in addition to five novels and books of essays and poetry, and has gained over time, without fanfare, a significant and committed following, rather at the stately pace and in the discreet manner of Alice Munro. His new book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which shares its title with a story from his 1985 collection, contains both new work and highlights from his oeuvre thus far.

Baxter can be a beautiful writer—there are in his fiction finely lyrical passages, the more lovely for their lack of pretension—but he is far from a pyrotechnic stylist. His protagonists are similarly low-key: largely educated, liberal, amiable midwesterners whose lives have not unfolded in quite the dizzying way they had, in youth, imagined. He has explained, moreover, that their midwesternness is not irrelevant to his literary project:

Mystery can be found anywhere, but there is a quality in the Midwest having to do both with the blandness of the landscape and the ways in which people here don’t always talk about what’s on their minds. The combination of these two things creates an interesting field of vision for writers.

As Peter Jenkins, a childhood piano prodigy, recalls in “Harmony of the World”:

In college I made a shocking discovery: other people existed in the world who were as talented as I was. If I sat down to play a Debussy étude, they would sit down and play Beethoven, only faster and louder than I had.

Fenstad, in “Fenstad’s Mother,” teaches night school and invites his mother to class, only to find that “his mother was watching him carefully, and her face was expressing all the complexity of dismay. Dismay radiated from her.” In “The Cousins” (one of the book’s previously uncollected stories), having told us of his cousin that “we had a kind of solidarity, Brantford and I…. We were oddly similar, more like brothers than cousins,” Benjamin the narrator reflects that

What Brantford had expected from life and what it had actually given him must have been so distinct and so dissonant that he probably felt his dignity dropping away little by little until he simply wasn’t himself anymore. He didn’t seem…

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