I finished Charles Baxter’s new book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (Pantheon, 400 pp.) more than a week ago, but I have been haunted by the stories ever since, and I know they will linger for a long time. As a fan who has read most of Baxter’s books, I am ready to say he is one of the best fiction writers we’ve got. His novels are skillful, persuasive, engrossing, and populated by believable, remarkable characters; vivid settings (especially when they take place in the Midwest); and plots full of consequence and twisted by surprise. Baxter writes with humor, even when he writes of sorrow (both qualities abound in The Feast of Love and Shadow Play), and he can write with riveting, frightening darkness (as in Saul and Patsy and The Soul Thief).
His novels are wonderful. His short stories are perhaps even better. As a matter of fact, Shadow Play and The Feast of Love both seem built of separate but interlocking stories, and parts of Saul and Patsy appeared in print as stories before the novel was published. Short stories aren’t easy to write, although Charles Baxter’s stories are so readable that they seem effortlessly made. He knows what he’s doing and if he does this without effort then he’s a magician. I expect he’s not a magician but a conscientious craftsman who succeeds because of hard work, pleasure, and grace. Who cares? The reward is in the reading.
This new collection is a big box of treasures. Since it includes a number of previously published stories, I’ve read some of them before. I enjoyed them again, just as much. I also enjoyed being in the company of intriguing, compelling, and upsetting new stories of new people in trouble. Yes, Charles Baxter writes about people in trouble. Isn’t that the duty of fiction writers? He also writes about people in the process of, and at the moment of, change.
The stories in Gryphon are full of oddballs, whom Baxter treats with respect and compassion. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to like them all, but we can see they’re as real as they are strange. There are drifters and grifters, loonies and loners, broken-hearted lovers, and losers of all ages. Homeless young waifs, demented old cranks, men in analysis, spendthrifts down on their luck, alcoholic academics, alcoholic rich retirees, and a super-rich recluse who has two sex partners and a fabulous art collection, and who loves chopping wood. There’s a next-door neighbor who’s an ex-con, a murderer, an addict, and a mooch—and he has a space ship in his basement. Many of these oddballs are harmless, and some are lovable, but a few of them are downright scary. In fact one of them is “Mr. Scary,” and he’s a twelve-year-old kid who sees his world as populated by zombies and replicants. In the title story, “Gryphon,” the center of attention is a charismatic substitute teacher who dispenses wacky wisdom and false information—that George Washington had Egyptian blood, that six times eleven is sometimes sixty-eight—and does tarot readings for the children and delivers their message straight, even when they forecast death.
The plots of these stories are as gripping as the characters. I won’t tell you any of the plots in detail, but be prepared to drive out onto a frozen lake, where another car has already fallen through the ice and sunk to the bottom. You’ll also join the citizens as they come out to watch a flood carry jetsam through their town. You’ll try to convince the proper authorities that someone is planning to blow a building (which building?) apart. Discover a pistol-packing teenager in the zoo, where she has just spent the night.
Endings are a challenge for a short story writer, especially one who aims for realism. It’s difficult to wrap up a story with a neat bow and call it finished, because real life isn’t lived in discrete episodes. Perhaps one reason Charles Baxter’s plots are so successful is that his stories often close with a door left open, with the consequences up for grabs. In one story an aimless young woman has fallen in love with a charming young man. The two are fast becoming a couple when the love affair is interrupted. The young man’s former lover makes contact with the young woman, takes her to lunch, and warns her that the charming young man is violent, an abuser. Who is our young heroine to believe? The ending is there, but it hasn’t happened yet. The ending of another story, the last one in the book, is: “Krumholz did not intend to budge: he would sit there, with his audience in front of him, elaborating this story of suffering and terror for as long as he pleased. He had just gotten started.”
Is it any wonder these stories are so haunting?