three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
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New and Selected Stories

A-GryphonUniversity of Minnesota professor Charles Baxter is the author of four short story collections and five novels, one of which, The Feast of Love (2000), was a National Book Award finalist. Of the 23 stories included in Gryphon, seven are new, and the remaining 16 are reprinted from former collections.

The Story: Encompassing nearly three decades of composition, these stories bring to light the complexities and conundrums that lie just beneath the hardscrabble surface of contemporary Midwesterners' lives. A suburban husband attends a cousin's funeral and falls under the spell of his captivating widow. An elderly woman struggles with the onset of dementia. A failed concert pianist falls fatefully in love with an unsuccessful singer. A recovering alcoholic learns that his new neighbor is a paroled murderer with a strange hobby. A journalist turns the tables on an enormously wealthy businessman. An eccentric substitute teacher deviates significantly from the standard curriculum. Each character will be touched by the strange and the extraordinary in unforeseen ways.
Pantheon. 416 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780307379214

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Baxter is a writer who plainly enjoys writing, who revels in it, which is rarer than you might think--not the enjoyment, necessarily, but the palpability of the pleasure (which works both ways). ... Baxter, a writer at home with ‘the smaller debris of consciousness' (‘debris'!), gets his details right." Mark Feeney

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Baxter's stories summon up a haunting beauty; his is a way of illustrating the mystical connections in life. I wish Baxter had written a foreword that explained the genesis of these stories and his reasons for choosing them for this collection. But this is a marvelous book." Joseph Peschel

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Such dramatic turns tend to be subtle and seemingly unimportant at first--a rude utterance from a homeless person, a stain spotted on a shirt, a song sung off-key--but Baxter wrings plenty of emotional and metaphorical power from them. ... Baxter's characters tend to stumble passively through life, curiously comfortable with the oddness that settles upon them." Mark Athitakis

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"These guns almost never go off, which is irritating, upsetting, enervating for the reader. ... 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." Susan Salter Reynolds

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell's America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper: that bleakly beautiful art in which mannequinlike figures are positioned without seeming awareness of one another, tentatively or clumsily posed, staring vacantly into space in scenes that both invite and repel nostalgia. ... [Baxter's stories] often end in a curious sort of unresolved vision as if, though nothing profound has happened, all that is going to plausibly happen has happened." Joyce Carol Oates

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If I have one criticism, it's that the stories often wind down in tasteful denouements that come across more as elegant triumphs of craft than satisfying conclusions. ... As many of the stories drew to a close, I found myself wishing for a bit more messiness, a bit more passion." Bart Schneider

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 of 5 Stars
"Most of [the stories] ... are consistently flat and affectless, with a deadpan humor, a style that Mr. Baxter seems to want to call his own. I wish I could write the kind of pat conclusion that he often uses to wrap up his stories to sum up this collection, but like a Baxter character, I'm too indifferent to have an opinion one way or the other to write one." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

With one notable exception, the critics labeled Baxter a "writer's writer" (Los Angeles Times) whose finely honed powers of observation and expert manipulation of his reader are well suited to short fiction. He skillfully distills his stories down to small but revealing moments of self-awareness, plumbing universal themes of love, duty, and "the rewards of plain everyday life." The critics noted a peculiar apathy that afflicts many of his characters and an unsettling lack of resolution to his story lines. Nevertheless, most judged the stories worthwhile for Baxter's elegant prose and astute characterizations. By turns uplifting and bleak, comic and heartbreaking, this new collection by "a master of the form" (Minneapolis Star Tribune) should entertain readers who prefer technique to theatrics.