Gryphon: New and Selected Stories
by Charles Baxter
Pantheon Books, 2011
$27.95 cloth, ISBN 9780307379214
reviewed by R. K. Mehta
There are those for whom only skydiving can give a certain kind of thrill, born in the terror of what might go wrong and then bred, in the dive itself, in the relief that it hasn’t. For the rest of us, there is the fiction of Charles Baxter, where the thrills are no less daring for being vicarious. His latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, is rife with characters trespassing on their own conversations, going where no one sensibly would, driven by a certain satisfaction in or resignation to the perils of being too honest.
There is the pain, in “Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-second,” of what a husband stricken with Alzheimers chooses to remember on his wedding anniversary, and the anguish of what he refuses to forget, in a sudden confrontation that suggests there was distance between them long before there was disease. Or, in the title story, in which a substitute teacher’s prediction about death is too unsettling for at least one of her students, the playground drama carries a heavy undertow of what are really adult fears and stakes. The tension and uncertainty in the best of these stories is something characters feel, mid-exchange, with a fury that is explosive even if submerged. But what Baxter leaves us with in these moments is something more like narrative freefall. In Baxter’s world, there’s very little to suggest the parachute will open in time. If pressed, we can’t say for sure there’s a parachute at all.
Even the kindness of quintessentially midwestern neighbors seems misspent here; neighbors in Baxter country bear witness to each other’s struggles with a sympathy that is itself isolating when it isn’t reciprocated. In “The Old Murderer,” the title character—a parolee who has just moved in next door—is received warily but warmly by the protagonist, Ellickson. A recovering alcoholic himself, Ellickson helps the old man out, relying on him to make himself feel better off, only to realize that the ex-con sees him in the same way. In “The Would-Be Father,” a man named Burrage guides the elderly Mrs. Schultz home after she loses her way under the influence of meds and similarly meets both resistance and pity: “Oh, it’s you I’m worried about, not me . . . What a man in your position does, after all. And that dot, Mars. It’s right over your house, isn’t it? It’s not over my house.” This is Baxter at his most brilliant, letting us enjoy Mrs. Schultz at her battiest and the gently forbearing Burrage. Only in retrospect will we realize the sense and prescience behind her remarks, in the real difficulties of Burrage’s position as a godfather suddenly called upon to parent.
Occasionally, Baxter puts us in the disconcerting position of sympathizing with characters who are blatantly unempathic. In “Fenstad’s Mother,” an appalled Fenstad brushes off a beggar for whom his mother has just taken off her own coat. He presses the first two bills he can find (twenties) into the woman’s palm, but not without saying, “Go away, please,” and pushing her aside when she goes on to claim they’re related. It’s a move that seems at once brutal and understandable in the course of the story. There is a similar moment of honesty that’s startling but well-earned in “The Cures for Love,” when Kit, still in shock at having been left by her boyfriend, wanders thru O’Hare, hoping for anonymity. Running into a cloyingly friendly former college acquaintance, Kit says she can’t remember her and refuses to be reminded of any connection. Few things are as chilling or as natural as Kit’s confession, later to herself, that they’d once talked about boys—how pretty the friend was then, and still is, with her diamond wedding ring: “I remember you. I just can’t do it in front of you. I can’t remember you when you’re there.”
The danger of stories whose characters fall at velocities like these is that the moment of extraordinary drama, the drop itself, passes quickly and may be followed by a narrative lull. When this happens, the reader is given a chance to find his feet with what feels a little like a guided tour through the plot, now petering out. But this is a minor complaint about a collection that left me a Baxter junkie, wishing only that more of his stories could end with the quiet power with which they began, as in the case of “Winter Journey.” If Charlie Brown had grown up and managed somehow to stay the same, he might have turned into the endearing Harrelson of “Winter Journey.” Harrelson is a guy who has “taught himself to cheer, ‘Hip hip hooray’ in secret,” as a way of getting through dark winter evenings with his dissertation, and who drives drunk through a snowstorm because he cannot face the possibility of being the “nerd,” the “coward” his fiancée already believes him to be. Skydiving, Baxter might remind us, isn’t a collaborative venture; both characters and readers are left to the elements and to themselves. But if there were someone whose fall we could cushion, it would probably be Harrelson, left woefully undefended by both author and self, aghast at all who have betrayed him, but tender to the end.