Back in the ’90s Charles Baxter, primarily known as a short story writer, published a novel called Shadow Play. Baxter is a master of the difficult, emotionally fraught moment, and this novel is filled with them. In one scene, two cousins are rowing out into the middle of a lake in early spring. One of them, Cyril, is dying. He plans to hurl himself overboard with a bunch of weights. The conversation between Cyril and Wyatt touches on many universal themes, and Baxter orchestrates it with seamless dialogue, description, humor, and pacing. I have brought this scene to creative writing classes where I have dissected it and put it back together as an exemplar of of fine fiction writing.
I was reminded of this great scene in Shadow Play while reading “Lust,” a story from Baxter’s latest collection, There’s Something I Want You to Do. A man, jilted by his girlfriend, goes to see his best friend, who is hospitalized in the end stages of cancer.
“There are other fish in the sea,” Benny tells his [dying] friend. “That’s the cliché with which I comfort myself. Other fish, other seas. I’ll be feeling one hundred percent soon.”
“But I need coaching. From you.”
“You’re funny.” Then he says, “You’re going to be on your own in no time flat. Where’s your hand?” Benny takes his friend’s hand again.
“How come this?” Benny asks.
“Well, you have a right to be,” Benny says before he realizes how undiplomatic this is. I only meant that….”
“I know what you meant.”
“Don’t worry. Did I tell you… they found a hospice for me?”
“No, you didn’t tell me.”
“It’s out in Hopkins. It’s cheap. At last, a hospice I can afford. Where are the girls now?” Dennis asks. “Where have the girls all gone? I haven’t had a lot of them visit me. Maybe they’ll drop roses on my casket.”
“They’ll be here.”
“Describe them. Do me a favor. Tell me a story. Let’s fill the time.”
Baxter certainly tells a story; the fictions in this new collection are strongly narrative. Characters appear and reappear and repeatedly say to one another, “There’s something I want you to do,” requests that make them accountable to one another. Baxter lives in Minneapolis, and I’m thankful that he writes of his own terrain, describing its social and emotional swales and feeling little need to venture farther afield. He demonstrates how it’s so much easier to strike a universal chord closer to home than to do a lot of research about an exotic place. And yet when Baxter chooses to venture out, he does so with great confidence and good reason. In “Bravery,” a young woman vacationing in Prague with her husband gets bumped by a streetcar, which sets her in motion toward an epiphany that could not have happened if she hadn’t been far away from home.
And yet this feeling of foreignness, this being an outsider (even in one’s own hometown) is one of Baxter’s principle preoccupations. In “Charity,” Matty, a down-on-his-luck gay man who suffers from chronic pain and desperately needs money to buy illegal prescription drugs for that pain, mugs Benny, a character who appeared in an earlier story and who has gone running in a park. Steeped in subsequent remorse about the attack, Matty thinks “’I am no longer myself.’ He did not know who this new person was, the man whom he had become… someone who belonged on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign that read HELP ME.”
Matty is not the only character who desperately needs help. In “Loyalty,” a man whose first wife left him finds her, twenty years later, in a sorry state on his doorstep and takes her in, much to the dismay of his current wife and children. Corinne’s cynical biological son resents her at first, because he doesn’t remember her, but slowly he accepts her. Then she finds an unexpected purpose as the indispensible caregiver to her former mother-in-law, a born-again Christian who is dying and who comes to believe that Corinne is part of the divine plan of her end of life.
Baxter wrestles with the ideas of divinity, Christian spirituality, and even theocracy. In a way, this volume is a testing ground for the reductive Primo Levi epigraph that provides a grace note to the collection: that one’s moral vision is the blend of one’s experience with other people’s experiences that have been assimilated as part of one’s one. Levi’s is a non-religious, non-Christian construct that does not take divine inspiration into account. The author also cites Ivan Karamazov and, in particular, his argument that there cannot be a God because innocent children are often made to suffer. I don’t necessarily get the sense that Baxter hews to this agnosticism; he merely allows it to play out.
In “Gluttony,” the daughter of a born-again Christian couple becomes involved with the son of a neo-natal doctor. Without consulting her parents, she decides to abort an unexpected pregnancy. Invited to her home, Elijah, the neo-natal doctor, undergoes a sort of inquisition of his religious beliefs and moral concerns, made all the more ironic because he brings children into the world—of anyone he should understand the atrocity of terminating a pregnancy. Baxter invites the reader to seriously consider the pro-life philosophy of the woman’s parents. His touch is so gentle, so neutral that we never wonder about his own feelings.
Baxter’s writing is characterized by this unselfconsciousness, this artless clarity. His characters take on their own lives. They subsist so independently of their creator that we almost forget that there is a creator.