A while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy of his latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, I was happy to say yes. I don’t remember a whole lot about the essay collection, except that Baxter argued against the kind of short story that ends in an epiphany where the main character learns a lesson or changes dramatically. He wanted stories that were more true to life and to the way things actually happen to real people. The stories in Gryphon are good examples of what Baxter was calling for; they are quiet stories about people you or I might know who are in familiar situations and go through recognizable experiences. The characters experience change, and perhaps they learn something, if only because something new has happened to them, but the changes are small. The stories capture a quiet kind of reality, which is matched by Baxter’s calmly straightforward, carefully detailed writing.
The stories cover a lot of emotional territory, describing, for example, a woman visiting her husband in a nursing home on their fifty-second anniversary, a man driving drunk through a snow storm to rescue his estranged fiancée when her car breaks down, a Swedish man visiting Detroit and learning the hard way what to expect from dangerous American cities. Other stories tell about a substitute teacher surprising her class with her very strange lesson plans (the title story), a man finding a drawing of a building with the caption “The next building I plan to bomb,” and a boy who follows his brother and his brother’s girlfriend out onto a frozen lake to see the car in the water under the clear ice.
The characters, situations, and experiences are varied, but in each case, Baxter captures the thoughts and feelings of the characters perfectly. His portraits of his characters are so accurate and convincing that he creates the sense of a world much larger than the one contained in the story. It’s like he describes one small slice of his fictional world so well that we can strongly sense the presence of the rest. The narrative voice is consistently understanding and compassionate throughout; there is no sense of anyone judging the characters who are frequently, although not always, troubled, uncertain, and confused. Baxter seems to want to help us understand these characters in order to understand humanity a little better.
These are “new and selected stories,” which means they date from the publication of Baxter’s first story collection in 1984 up to the present. Remarkably, the narrative voice remains much the same over that span of time, and that is the book’s major weakness: the collection contains 23 stories, and by the time I finished all of them, I was longing for something a little different. I would have welcomed a little more drama or a punchier narrative voice. The final story starts to head into different territory; here, a man travels to the wilds of northern Minnesota to interview a wealthy businessman and, feeling alienated and angry in the vast mansion, acts out in interesting ways. But this story comes a little too late to vary the mood of the book much.
Still, the stories need not be read all at once, and, taken in isolation, each one is a pleasure to read.