Shows of the imagination:
Charles Baxter, writer/teacher at Warren Wilson College, publishes his “best-of”
by Rob Neufeld
Charles Baxter, one of the master writers who teaches within Warren Wilson College’s MFA Writing Program, furthers his reputation with “Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.” The new book brings his short story collection total to five, matching the number of novels he’s published.
The title story, “Gryphon,” is a Roald Dahl kind of shout-out that says: even though it’s sometimes dangerous, it’s great to let the imagination roam. The same philosophy applies to fabulous beasts and daring concepts.
“Miss Ferenczi!” calls out a fourth grader in the “Gryphon” story. “John said that six times eleven is sixty-eight and you said he was right!”
“In higher mathematics,” Ferenczi, a substitute teacher, responds, “six times eleven can be considered to be sixty-eight.”
“Think of six times eleven equals sixty-eight as a substitute fact,” she advises. “When your teacher, Mr. Hibler returns, six times eleven will be sixty-six again…And it will be that way for the rest of your lives in Five Oaks.”
On beyond Five Oaks
Conformist Midwestern suburbs are one of the familiar types of environment in Baxter’s collection. There are also the northern woods, big cities, and universities. In the story, “Harmony of the World,” Baxter imagines a small Ohio town in which the narrator’s family members were solid, mediocre, and cheerful. People played the piano, “but not too well, since excellent playing would have been faintly antisocial.”
Yet, a local genius—the narrator, Peter Jenkins—had emerged from this burg, having been applauded and revered by his fellows. As it turns out, Peter has a tragic flaw—a lack of craziness, which dooms him to a fate of undistinguished limbo. As described by Dante, Baxter notes, this state consists of a lot of sighing.
Baxter’s literary, musical, art, and pop culture references create a stream of cultural commentary throughout his fiction. Even when the references are what pop culture would call high culture, they are illustrated so well, they come off as great stories. “Harmony of the World” presents the story of Paul Hindemith, the music-of-the-spheres composer whose reputation declined after his death; and the lyrics of “Nine Epitaphs” by Theodore Chanler.
I want to go hear “Nine Epitaphs” now.
In “The Winner,” the final story in “Gryphon,” Baxter turns his myth-making lens on a Gatsby-type setting. Feature writer Jerry Krumholtz is on his way to interview reclusive billionaire James Mallard for the magazine, “Success.”
Lost in northern Minnesota, Krumholtz gets directions from a gas station attendant, whose landmarks are Señor Big Cheese and On Spec! Glasses. When Krumholtz finally arrives at the Mallard castle, he experiences a fairy tale, with the Olympian owner claiming many women, walking around naked at times, and demonstrating how to butcher a deer.
Angered by rich people’s monopoly on happiness, Krumholtz spins a ghastly (fictional) tale about his own misfortunes. He gets the Mallards to cry and their home-schooled children to be struck dumb with shock.
Baxter knows how to do ghastly. His relationship with the being that some of his characters call God involves developing a response to the accidents of life. Baxter welcomes such visitations, questions their meanings, and wraps them in stage clothes.
A mysterious allegorical stalker in the story, “Ghosts,” actually goes by the name of Augenblick—German for “blink of an eye.” Baxter likes to play—sometimes too capriciously, as in “Ghosts” and “Westland.”
Most of the time, Baxter’s pilgrim’s journeys and tragi-comic tales plumb the depths of psychology and faith. Poe and Kafka get a modern realist’s brush.
“Surprised by Joy” contains Thurberesque humor—a husband coming home to his wife who has suddenly taken to standing on her head with her legs crossed. But, as it turns out, both partners are suffering a horrendous haunting. Their daughter, who died at age three in a freak accident, comes to both of them in dreams, showing signs of growing up and saying that her new world is okay but she misses her parents.
There is a fierceness in Baxter’s realistic scenes of calamity that weds feeling with technique. But do not dismiss the value of great technique, something that Baxter got to hone as a teacher in Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
The program involves January and July residencies, characterized by team-taught workshops and combined with independent study. Baxter has taught, written, and read at many of the residencies since 1985.
One year, he related in an interview with the Citizen-Times, he lectured on “Unheard Melodies”—“the ways that people don’t listen.” He suggested to students that “one way to make dialogue come alive is to make the characters not listen to each other.”
Baxter exemplifies how entertainment and enlightenment come together in good fiction. Yes, we can be both fun-loving and deep.
That is why, at the beginning of his book’s first story, “The Would-be Father,” Baxter puts an odd vision in front of his hero, a man who has suddenly become the guardian of his niece. The face of the man’s elderly neighbor, Mrs. Schultz, appears in his kitchen window. She’d like a drink of water. The daft crone becomes a Zen-like guide through his misadventures.
Then there’s the fun of naming someone Augenblick. “I’ve been reading the letters of Eudora Welty,” Baxter related in response to the matter of name-making. “In one of her stories, someone is named Dill Pickle.”
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter (Pantheon hardcover, Jan. 11, 2011, 408 pages, $27.95)
Read interview (soon to be posted)
ATTEND THE PROGRAMS
The Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers presents daily readings and lectures by students and instructors, Jan. 3 – 12. Check the schedule.