By Jeff Turrentine
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 8:09 PM
Charles Baxter's short stories easily satisfy the genre's one nonnegotiable requirement: The central characters, through an encounter or an epiphany, must undergo some kind of transformation. What's most pleasurable, however, about the work-in-miniature by this celebrated American novelist ("The Feast of Love," "Saul and Patsy") isn't the way it fulfills its basic generic obligations. It's the way that Baxter lovingly teases anguish, humor and heart-rending beauty out of clear, unaffected sentences describing the gray-clouded interior worlds inhabited by his cast of (largely) Midwestern melancholics.
Here's how Baxter describes the grieving mother of a dead 3-year-old, a woman who has found she can no longer endure nature's glorious pageant of regular renewal: "She grew to hate the sun and its long, lengthening arcs. When living trees broke open into pink and white blossoms in the spring, Harriet wanted to fling herself against them. She couldn't remember what it was about life that had ever interested her." Or a pianist's cringing realization that the vocalist he's accompanying is ever so slightly off-key: "I felt as though I were in the presence of one of God's more complicated pranks." Or a recently spurned woman, reaching weakly for a prop of self-confidence as she falls into despair: "She stood naked in front of the mirror. She thought: I am the sexiest woman who can read Latin and Greek in the state of Illinois."
Sentences like these can stop a reader mid-page, demanding to be savored again before going any further. And they're to be found in every story in "Gryphon," a thoughtfully chosen collection that spans Baxter's career. Many of these 23 stories will already be familiar to his fans, all having appeared previously, but the effect of reading (or rereading) them in concert is a powerful one. They would appear to have been selected not only for their shimmering prose, but for the way they combine to suggest an entire lonely and somewhat ill-managed universe - the kind where an alcoholic trying to get sober has "put his faith in the Almighty to get him through this episode and through the rest of his life," but where "God had declined the honor so far and was keeping up a chilly silence."
The center of this universe is Five Oaks, Mich. - Baxter's semirural, Rust Belt Yoknapatawpha - where many of these stories take place. Mythic locales, appropriately enough, are fertile habitats for mythic beasts. In the collection's title story, named for a fantastic creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, an equally fantastic creature appears one day in a Five Oaks elementary school classroom. She's Miss Ferenczi, a substitute teacher who promptly does away with the curriculum and begins instructing her fourth-grade pupils in the hows, whys and wherefores of her own altered reality, in which diamonds are magic, Beethoven faked his deafness to get attention, angels live under the thick clouds of Venus, and 6 times 11 equals 68. (This last lesson is proffered by the substitute teacher as, fittingly, a "substitute fact.")
Miss Ferenczi tells the students that as soon as their regular teacher returns, "six times eleven will be sixty-six again, you can rest assured. And it will be that for the rest of your lives in Five Oaks." It's a prognosis, of course, and not a very hopeful one: After the fourth grade, she seems to be telling them, you'll all be subjects of the cold, empirical world, where whimsy and imagination have been smothered to death by science and data. You will lose something essential, and you'll never be able to get it back.
A deep and irreparable sense of loss is the shared condition of almost all the characters in these stories. In "Surprised by Joy," a young married couple must endure two tragedies: first, the loss of their child, and second, the fact that only one of them is prepared to heal and move on. The mirror-gazing classics teacher in "The Cures for Love," facing life alone after the abrupt exit of her lover, dreams of receiving romantic counsel from no less a therapist than Ovid, who advises her to avoid witnessing any public displays of affection. "If you don't want to love, don't expose yourself to the sight of love, the contagion."
Redemption, when it's available, always seems just outside the price range of these bruised and battered souls. In "Winter Journey," a man's drunken, dangerous attempt to rescue his stranded fiancee after her car has broken down becomes the stuff of Homeric epic. As he travels the short distance from his apartment to the Mobil station where she's waiting for him, he slides and skids over the snowy streets, hitting parked cars, busting his one remaining headlight and incurring a mysterious head injury that he's too wasted to remember even getting. He survives - miraculously - but something else dies that night, despite his heroic efforts.
"I made it! I made it over here!" he shouts at his disbelieving and by now thoroughly disenchanted fiancee. And for that moment, Baxter invites us to celebrate with the driver his dubious triumph. The deck is stacked against him, as it is against almost all of these characters. But they get major points - in their creator's eyes, and in ours - for fighting back, however fruitlessly.
Turrentine, a former Post reporter, is a writer living in Los Angeles. Michael Dirda, who usually reviews on Thursday, is away.
New and Selected Stories
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon. 400 pp. $27.95