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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Review: Gryphon

Book Review: Gryphon

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter (Pantheon Books, $27.95, 9780307379214, January 11, 2010)

Even if you're an avid reader of literary fiction, there's at least a chance Charles Baxter is one of those writers whose quiet, underappreciated output you may have missed. With the publication of this volume of 23 stories, seven of them not previously collected, there's no longer any excuse to overlook a body of work that's noteworthy for its keen, often startling, insights into human character, and its consistent craftsmanship.

Most of Gryphon's stories are set in Michigan (especially the fictional town of Five Oaks, the locale of several of his novels) or Minnesota, the two states where Baxter has spent more than three decades teaching. But unlike other modern realists like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford, Baxter concentrates on decidedly middle-class characters--teachers, journalists, artists and less-than-prosperous professionals--whose uncertain economic status frequently is matched by evident bewilderment at the disconcerting turns their lives have taken.

There's no false drama and little to titillate or shock here. More than anything, Baxter is a candid, unsparing chronicler of fragile relationships. "Poor Devil," the portrait of a divorcing couple united for a final afternoon of cleaning in the house they're about to abandon, is a painfully observant portrait of aversion and longing in a fractured marriage. In "Surprised by Joy," Baxter traces the poorly matched paths of grief navigated by a husband and wife after the sudden death of their young child. "The Flood Show" depicts one man's enduring passion for the woman who had left him and their young son more than a decade earlier, while a conservative, churchgoing man and his "social progressive" mother grope toward a sort of reconciliation in "Fenstad's Mother."

Baxter seasons these realistic offerings with a generous helping of more unconventional tales. Perhaps the best example is the title story, in which a substitute teacher uses Tarot cards to tell the fortunes of her elementary school charges. In "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb," a "harmless" banker finds a piece of paper containing a drawing with that caption and soon senses his life unraveling. A "fat balding man with horrible yellow-green eyes," who calls himself the "Genie of the Magic Lamp," grants three wishes to a young woman who's involved with an attractive but dangerous lover in "Kiss Away." The urban desolation of modern-day Detroit takes on an apocalyptic tinge in "The Disappeared."

In one penetrating scene after another, Charles Baxter demonstrates his mastery of the nuances of character, plot and language. While there's little that's tidy about the lives depicted in this collection, taken together they offer some revealing pieces of the puzzles that are love and life.--Harvey Freedenberg

Shelf Talker: A modern master of short fiction offers a generous sample of his collected work along with seven uncollected stories.

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