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Rain Taxi
Monday, April 11th, 2011
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Gryphon: New and Selected Stories

by Charles Baxter

Catching the Denouement

A review by James Naiden

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.

In "The Disappeared," Anders is a young Swedish engineer visiting Detroit. In an off-moment, he encounters Lauren, a dark-skinned, svelte young woman who spends a little time with him but makes it clear she will like him for one night only. She fascinates Anders, although he seems almost inept in dealing with her lack of commitment. But he tries, perhaps too hard: "He went over to her in the dark and drew her to him and kissed her. Her breath was layered with smoke, apparently from cigarettes. Immediately he felt an unusual physical sensation inside his skin, like something heating up in a frying pan." Unfortunately for Anders, he doesn't read the signs correctly, for the woman is certainly bad news, no matter what her physical attributes are. She says she belongs to a "church," which he somehow finds later in inner city Detroit, where he's assaulted from behind and knocked unconscious. He wakes up in a hospital, not seriously injured but still oblivious to the dangers of life in a large, disjointed American city. At the story's end, it is unclear whether his misconceptions are still intact.

Having described miscues and violence and fleeting tenderness, Baxter often ends his short fiction with such suspended conclusions. The title story, however, is a strong example of the author's interest in misunderstandings as the coeval for tragedy and incompetence. In this case, a fourth-grade teacher gets sick and a substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi, appears before his class the next day. She is poorly qualified and appears to have psychological disturbances the students recognize quickly, although none of them knows what to do about it. At one point, she recounts seeing a gryphon -- "an animal in a cage, a monster, half bird and half lion" -- while traveling in Egypt. She tells the fourth-graders other wild tales, which only some of them believe. "She lies," says one kid on the school bus afterward. Eventually, after her eccentric behavior reaches a strange climax, one of the fourth-graders tells on Miss Ferenczi to the school principal, and she leaves by noon that day. In this story, Baxter's descriptions of children's collective and individual intelligence are utterly convincing; told through the eyes of a student, the story evokes a childhood experience one is not likely to forget.

Baxter's writing certainly leads one to admire his skilled craftsmanship in these stories. His command of narrative control is expedient, with quick shifts of focus to move the given story subtly along. He occasionally indulges in politically correct references -- "server" instead of "waiter" or "waitress," for example -- and words like "meter" and "centimeter" instead of "foot" or "inch" also seem out of place, corraling his ability to tell a story when the characters he depicts simply would not use such a lexicon. It's one thing when Texas-born-and-bred Patricia Highsmith writes this way, because her characters live in Europe. Baxter sometimes seems to forget that he's writing about American life in his fiction, not the metric-minded across the pond.

Still, it must be said that Charles Baxter is a superb writer. He is undeceived and insightful about human character and its savage unpredictability, the need to connect in a world often unsettling and unfriendly. As one ages, it is more starkly so. Baxter catches this sense of perpetual denouement in a manner that recalls other superb North American writers now living -- Richard Ford, Alice Munro, John Dufresne, Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje, Ann Beattie -- and one can only be grateful for fiction of this rank. Gryphon is a first-rate collection of short stories exploring the tight yet dangerous social fabric in which we all live and the incessant discontinuities that feed our daily uncertainty.


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