New and Selected Stories
Pantheon: 405 pp., $27.95
Stories have a different metabolism than novels. Picture a sine wave: The emotions, heat and energy of the stories are on one axis, measured in heartbeats, units of anxiety or levels of happiness. On the other axis is time, measured in paragraphs or pages.
In this graph, stories have more peaks and valleys that happen faster than in novels. More emotion in a smaller space. Contents under pressure. They also have a cumulative effect that can be, if you are a particularly sensitive person, quite pronounced. A novel drags you deeper into a mood that lasts longer, but stories pick you up — the poor ragdoll reader — and suddenly drop you. With any luck, you might shake their influence in less than 24 hours.
Charles Baxter, master puppeteer, a writer’s writer, knows all of this.
As he reminds readers in “Gryphon: New and Selected Stories,” 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.
Whose problem is this? If you pick your head up from a collection of stories feeling heavy, beaten, powerless to alleviate poverty, loneliness, illness in the world, whose fault is that? The author’s?
Baxter’s settings have always been suburban. Characters peer out the kitchen window or out the windshield as they drive. You know this landscape — if you found yourself in one of their houses, you’d know where to find the trash can (under the sink).
So the good news is, the author is right in there with you: The emotions Baxter’s characters experience are familiar — from dread all the way up the ladder to profound joy in simple things, familiar rituals and secure love. The bad news is, he doesn’t know the way out; he’s a writer, not a preacher. He offers no solutions in these stories in which Tarot, astrology and beggars who grant wishes appear.
In the title story, an angel in the form of a fourth-grade substitute teacher cracks open the syllabus she is supposed to follow to reveal an amazing world of possibilities, mysteries and secrets. Of course, she is chased away by the mediocre world, the school bureaucrats. But lo and behold! The science class they have before she leaves, a lesson about the plain old “metamorphosis from egg to larva to pupa to adult” turns out to be pretty darn amazing. Regular life, even in the suburbs, is full of foolish joys and uncharted mysteries.
The characters in these stories are academics, perpetual doctoral students, musicians with not quite enough talent to succeed as musicians, critics, journalists and engineers. Families suffer estrangement, the lapse of sex, the loss of children, Alzheimer’s. There are barriers to feeling — alcohol, the sense of being foreign that a traveler experiences, aging, illness, youth and, in the final story, “The Winner,” wealth. In this story, a journalist travels to the fortress a successful entrepreneur has built for his family. Money, one ticket out of suburbia, is revealed as a nefarious, desensitizing screen that separates the rich from their fellow humans.
The stories in “Gryphon: New and Selected Stories” are tightly wound. There is some kind of precipice in each: some lie that could ruin everything, thin ice, suicidal tendencies, concealed violence. These guns almost never go off, which is irritating, upsetting, enervating for the reader. The author’s calm in the face of all this tension is also irritating. For God’s sake, man — where’s the release?
And still, Baxter shines that bright light on his characters, so bright that the landscape around them, in almost every story, shimmers like a mirage in extreme heat. “Tell me a story with me in it,” a little boy begs his uncle, who is learning to be a father to the newly orphaned boy. Tell me a story with me in it, we say to the writer, and he does, 23 times in this collection.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.