Let’s get beyond the cliché about the short story being mordant or dead. Let’s also get beyond the prejudice that the “short form” is for those authors who can’t sustain a narrative. Let’s also, finally, admit that the short story is always suspect and seemingly a distant second choice for readers of fiction. So what we have here is a decades-long collection by one of our finest long-form authors (The Feast of Love; Saul and Patsy) that he has turned out consistently and beautifully without prejudice to either form.
Charles Baxter has a mesmerizing talent for creating people who are uniquely themselves yet not really familiar. They are often people just on the wrong side of happiness, grasping toward it so as not to be in misery, but still missing the mark. His new collection of short stories which dates from the mid-eighties to the present shows an amazing array of characters who are normal and meeting really strange circumstances or who are not really right but living in a normal world. More than interesting either way.
In the title story, a fourth grade substitute teacher first comes across as unconventional to her class and the narrator in particular. Unconventional becomes rather strange by the time she is let go several months later. The effect on the narrator and his classmates is so varied and so complex that her life becomes an open book to us in the matter of a few pages. The small town in the Midwest (the Midwest being Baxter’s canvas) is neither cruel nor cut off. The students learn more than book knowledge from Miss Ferenczi.
In most of these stories little incidents reveal the whole of a person’ life. The brief interaction over less than a year between father slacker son in The Eleventh Floor gives so much of their lives that we know what happened and can guess what will probably follow.
Baxter does not use sentiment as glue. These are hard and realistic people searching for love, forgiveness, redemption, or heading aimlessly toward their perceived fate. Yet we learn fondness for them even if we want to wake them up or agree with their relatives and friends that they really are making a mess.
There is also sympathy for the straight shooters, the people who try so hard to be normal and good and don’t really get the reward. Anders, a very upright young business man visiting from Sweden in The Disappeared goes looking for love in Detroit one evening and falls into much more than he can handle. The touch of magical realism that winds its way through much of Baxter’s work shows up here and makes the story real and the outcome believable.
Be thankful then for this amazing compilation. Read the novels. But read this too. Charles Baxter needs the recognition he deserves.
Baxter, Charles, 1947-. Gryphon: new and selected stories. New York: Pantheon Books, c2011