Synopses & Reviews
Ever since the publication of The Harmony of the World
in 1984, Charles Baxter has slowly gained a reputation as one of America’s finest short-story writers. Each subsequent collection — Through the Safety Net, A Relative Stranger,
— was further confirmation of his mastery: his gift for capturing the immediate moment, for revealing the unexpected in the ordinary, for showing how the smallest shock can pierce the heart of an intimacy. Gryphon
brings together the best of Baxter’s previous collections with seven new stories, giving us the most complete portrait of his achievement.
Baxter once described himself as “a Midwestern writer in a postmodern age”: at home in a terrain best known for its blandness, one that does not give up its secrets easily, whose residents don’t always talk about what’s on their mind, and where something out of the quotidian — some stress, the appearance of a stranger, or a knock on the window — may be all that’s needed to force what lies underneath to the surface and to disclose a surprising impulse, frustration, or desire. Whether friends or strangers, the characters in Baxter’s stories share a desire — sometimes muted and sometimes fierce — to break through the fragile glass of convention. In the title story, a substitute teacher walks into a new classroom, draws an outsized tree on the blackboard on a whim, and rewards her students by reading their fortunes using a Tarot deck. In each of the stories we see the delicate tension between what we want to believe and what we need to believe.
By turns compassionate, gently humorous, and haunting, Gryphon proves William Maxwell’s assertion that “nobody can touch Charles Baxter in the field that he has carved out for himself.”
"Baxter's skill with short fiction is confirmed in this stellar collection of 23 stories, seven of which are new. The title story is deservedly a classic, and other favorites, such as 'Fenstad's Mother,' have gathered resonance as well, and the new stories show Baxter working a quirky beat. In each, the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal. In 'Poor Devil,' the 'devils' are a self-destructive couple headed for a divorce, while, in 'Ghosts,' a stranger enters a young woman's house and tells her they are soul mates. She accuses him of being a devil, but his intentions are much less sinister than she imagines. 'Nightfall had always brought his devils out,' the narrator says in 'The Old Murderer,' a touching story about an alcoholic and an ex-con, each trying to get through the day. In 'Royal Blue,' arguably the best of the new stories, an undertow of mystery shadows a handsome young art dealer who understands that 9/11 has affected a fundamental change in his life. In Baxter's comic-melancholic world, people may be incapable of averting sadness or violence, but they survive. (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper...Baxter is a warmly disposed yet unsentimental chronicler of American lives...highly readable." New York Times Book Review
"Mesmerizing....The uncanny power of Baxter's work derives from his knowledge of our secret selves as well as our surface ones." Kirkus
"Baxter lovingly teases anguish, humor and heart-rending beauty out of clear, unaffected sentences describing the gray-clouded interior worlds inhabited by his cast of (largely) Midwestern melancholics....Sentences like these can stop a reader mid-page, demanding to be savored again before going any further." The Washington Post
"Once, in a tribute to the writer William Maxwell, Charles Baxter speculated that, among the instruments of the orchestra, Maxwell would be an oboe, 'incapable of loudness ... noted for perfect pitch and delicacy of tone.' How neatly the description dovetails with Baxter's own gifts! Modestly and delicately, his stories touch on core emotions and relationships. Like other masters of the form, Baxter's short stories don't seem abbreviated at all; he manages to suggest the complexity of an entire life within a few pages." The Post and Courier
"Precise and insightful....Baxter's stories summon up a haunting beauty...this is a marvelous book." Kansas City Star
"Elegant...Baxter is a melancholy expert craftsman." New Yorker
"Baxter knows how to play with a reader's emotions; he knows when to flatten the curve, when to turn up the volume. He knows exactly what you will feel if the thing you fear is about to happen doesn't happen. Because he is so good, his writing so seemingly effortless, his landscapes and portraits so precisely detailed, the effect is harder to shake. And this is the effect: We stumble. A certain disintegration is inevitable; with so much that is known, mapped-out, understood about the human condition, foolish joy is a supreme triumph....Tell me a story with me in it, we say to the writer, and he does, 23 times in this collection." Los Angeles Times
"Beneath the shadowless Norman Rockwell contours of Baxter's Midwest lurks a chilling starkness and sense of isolation reminiscent of the bleakly beautiful work of Edward Hopper." New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011
"What a treasure this volume is! As it arcs from 'Harmony of the World' (my favorite early Baxter) through such glories as 'Fensted's Mother' and 'The Disappeared' and on to the marvelous new work, it dazzles us with the full brilliance of this writer's vision. 'The problem with joy,' says one of his characters, 'is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness.' As does Baxter's beautiful work." Andrea Barrett
"Baxter weaves together seemingly mundane activities into complex examples of love, fear, and anxiety...each action serves as a lens to focus Baxter's illumination of the mysteries of life." Library Journal
"The superior stories...showcase Baxter's first-rate talents in the form: sophisticated humor, exact writing style, plots at once ordinary and extraordinary, and in, common with all masters of the form, wizardry at the fetching opening line." Booklist
"This volume comprises twenty-three stories, seven of which are new and the remainder of which are among the works that have led this author to become so highly regarded by peers and readers alike. They are mostly set in Minnesota or Michigan; New York City and Alaska make appearances, but the natural pull of Charles Baxter's fiction is, and always has been, toward the Upper Midwest. His characters are replete with tentative, even desperate, happiness, measured by the sharpness of past disappointment or the blunt defeat of naive expectations. Dislocation and absurdity occupy most of his well-wrought fictional world." James Naiden, Rain Taxi
(Read the entire Rain Taxi review
From a writer whose work “reminds one of how broad and deep and shining a story can be” (Alice Munro), a selection that gathers the best from his four earlier collections as well as seven previously uncollected stories.
However different they are from one another, all of the people in Charles Baxter’s stories share a desire — sometimes muted and sometimes fierce — to break through the fragile glass of convention. Take for instance the substitute teacher in the title story: walking into a new classroom, she decides that “this room needs a tree” and proceeds to draw an outsize tree on the blackboard; then she rewards the students by telling their fortunes using a Tarot deck. And so we are in the territory of Baxter’s imagination, where the ordinary and the quotidian bump up against the eerie and the inexplicable, where the lyrical and the metaphysical coexist, and where the events that jolt his characters — whether they are catastrophic or almost imperceptible gestures — lead to equally unexpected, powerful, and moving effects.
William Maxwell once remarked that “nobody can touch Baxter in the field that he has carved out for himself.” This volume is the clearest articulation yet of Baxter’s unique achievement.
About the Author
Charles Baxter is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the story collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Table of Contents
The Would-be Father
Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-second
Harmony of the World
Surprised by Joy
The Eleventh Floor
The Next Building I Plan to Bomb
The Cures for Love
The Old Murderer