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Ordinary people

In these radiant tales, Charles Baxter finds deep complexity beneath still surfaces of Midwest lives

(Gwenda Kaczor)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Charles Baxter’s second story collection, which came out in 1985, was called “Through the Safety Net.’’ His body of work might well be called “Under the Radar.’’ Baxter’s best-known novel, “The Feast of Love,’’ was a 2000 National Book Award finalist and made into a 2007 film. Otherwise he has gone about his trade with far less recognition than the unemphatic radiance of his fiction deserves.

Baxter has published three other story collections, four other novels, two volumes of literary essays, and one of poetry. It’s been a steady accumulation of excellence. In addition, Baxter has been a highly regarded writing teacher: at Wayne State University, in Detroit; the University of Michigan; and the University of Minnesota, where he presently teaches.

Those locations matter. Baxter’s concerns are universal — the wonders and treachery of love; the transcendence lying in the mundane; how decency, often despite itself, can so hardily endure; “the rewards of plain everyday life,’’ as he puts it in “The Cousins,’’ one of the new stories — but most of his fiction is set in the Midwest: small rural communities; college towns like Ann Arbor; cities either in collapse (Detroit) or that aren’t quite citylike (Minneapolis-St. Paul). These are very different places, but the flatter vowels and harder winters they share intensify the feelings somehow.

“This state is like Holland,’’ the narrator of “Westland,’’ says of Michigan. “Cold, clammy mists mix with freezing rain in autumn, and hard rains in the spring are broken by tropical heat and tornadoes. It’s attack weather. The sky covers you with a metallic-blue, watercolor wash over tinfoil.’’ “Attack weather’’!

Meteorology can bring out the best in Baxter’s prose: floods, humidity, snow. Again, all very Midwestern. Skates in Baxter’s stories are a lot like salvation in Flannery O’Connor’s. “Passing a frozen pond in the city park, Fenstad slowed down to watch the skaters, many of whom he knew by name and skating style,’’ thinks the son in “Fenstad’s Mother.’’ “From a distance they were dots of color ready for flight, frictionless. To express grief on skates seemed almost impossible, and Fenstad liked that.’’

Baxter is a writer who plainly enjoys writing, who revels in it, which is rarer than you might think — not the enjoyment, necessarily, but the palpability of the pleasure (which works both ways). Making stories and sharing them comes as naturally to him as spinning webs does to spiders.

There’s nothing fussy or affected about Baxter’s style, though it can be effortlessly luxuriant. As with any good stylist, and Baxter is very good, individual words matter to him. Sometimes the words can be as few as two. A perpetual grad student “likes to cheer for himself. It is something he has taught himself to do, in secret.’’ What makes the remark remarkable is that “in secret.’’ Sometimes it’s just a single word. In that same story, “Winter Journey,’’ “Archaic joy washes over him.’’ The adjective is thrilling (the verb is right up there, too).

Being a stylist is one thing. Being an observer is quite another — and, if anything, even more important within the exacting dimensions of a short story. Baxter, a writer at home with “the smaller debris of consciousness’’ (“debris’’!), gets his details right. Like one of his characters, he’s “interested in most observable phenomena.’’

In the title story, a schoolboy notes of a substitute teacher “she was no special age — an adult is an adult.’’ It’s sleeting in “Flood Show’’ when a woman jumps into her car to escape her husband (her marriage, actually) — but she’s in such a hurry she doesn’t turn “on her windshield wiper until she was halfway down the block.’’ In “Fenstad’s Mother,’’ “The apartment smelled of soap and Lysol, the signs of an old woman who wouldn’t tolerate nonsense.’’

Prose and observation are the mortar and brick of short fiction. Intelligence is its wild card. Too much can constrain. Too little dulls and flattens. Baxter’s intelligence is both keen and playful. Many of the characters reflect his intellect and cultivation: an art dealer, a music critic, a freelance journalist, various academics, and bankers. Classical music figures in at least three of the stories. Another, “The Cures for Love’’ (a very Baxter title), hinges on the protagonist’s (very funny) translations from Ovid. Yet there’s nothing effete or rarefied about these stories. Baxter’s characters, those well off just as much as those up against it, know “the compromises of tedium and the hard bloody edge of necessity.’’

Some of Baxter’s people wouldn’t look out of place in a Raymond Carver story: wildcat teens; the overweight 12-year-old boy, “Mr. Scary,’’ obsessed with replicants and zombies; the woman in “Gryphon’’ who drives “a rusting green Rambler American’’; overwhelmed single parents; the irked social worker who fires some random shots at a nuclear reactor (what the hell, right?) in “Westland.’’ Baxter long ago got tenure, but that doesn’t keep his vision from embracing, in “Snow,’’ “the complex dignity of many small-town people who do not resort to alcohol until well after night has fallen.’’

Reading Baxter, one is reminded that art, among many other things, is a way of loving the world — of shaping and extending that complex dignity he writes of. Keats famously declared himself “half in love with easeful death.’’ Baxter is wholly in love with uneaseful life. Nowhere does that comes across so well, perhaps, as in a passage from “The Cousins.’’ The story has such a narrative sweep and density of detail (much of it Cheeverish) it could be the precis for a novel. The narrator lived a profligate life as an aspiring actor in New York before moving back to (where else?) Minneapolis. Reflecting on his 20s, he writes, “all I wanted to do was throw my life away. But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope it goes on forever.’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

GRYPHON: New and Selected Stories
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon, 400 pp., $27.95