Charles Baxter puts on a suspenseful balancing act in these 11 short stories. Over and again he seems right on the verge of toppling into the self-conscious "minimalism" now so popular on the college campuses (Baxter teaches at Wayne State University in Michigan), and over and again at the last moment he hauls himself upright, skillfully if perilously maintaining a most appealing exuberance after repeatedly flirting with fashionable nihilism.
Initially, the signs are not terribly promising. The second story, "Winter Journey," begins, "Harrelson, perpetual Ph.D. student, poverty-stricken dissertation nonfinisher, academic man of all work, gourmand, stands in the tiny kitchen cluttered with yellow note pads, a basketball, books, misplaced bookmarks, and boxes of ant killer, staring down at a dented saucepan of cold soup" -- and at once it seems we are back again in Grad-School Land, that hermetic place where young writers with scant experience of life bewail the cruelties that fate has dealt them.
But self-pity, it soon develops, is not Baxter's stock in trade at all. "Winter Journey" turns out to be not a lament but a wry satire, one involving a most amusing piece of automotive folly and a well-deserved, if ruefully delivered, rejection. Baxter's interest in Harrelson, we soon enough see, is not in his unfinished dissertation but in his undeveloped life; that he is a failed graduate student is of far less consequence than that he is a man without purpose, boozily and amiably retreating from life's challenges.
He's one of several in these stories who do just that, though the forms of their retreats and the motives for them vary widely. If there is a consistent theme in Baxter's work, it is the difficulty people have in accommodating themselves to a world that is complex, mysterious and demanding, that offers rewards that glitter all the more brightly because so few attain them. At times, as I say, this borders on the fashionably reflexive:
"If you are not famous in America, you are considered a mistake. They suspend you in negative air and give you bad jobs working in basements pushing mops from eight at night until four in the morning. No one famous ever punches a time clock or buys no-brand niblets canned corn. If you are famous, they know how to make your face shine under the spotlights. But if you are not famous, then you are not interesting in America, and they put you in a brown uniform and you mop the Mt. Hope Hospital corridors, which is his, George Eliot Christianson, Jr.'s, job. They don't care that he wants to be somebody. Ambitions can go to Pasadena, for all the good they do. Ambitions alone are not (and will not ever be) fame."
That passage is from "Media Event," a story that manages to avoid being mere sociopolitical harangue because in the end it is the character that matters more than the harangue. Unlike so many other young American writers -- especially those now busily reviving the short story -- Baxter cares about his people, recognizes the validity and dignity of their lives, grants them humor and individuality. By contrast with the zombies who amble their way through so much contemporary American fiction, Baxter's people are trying in various ways and with varying degrees of success to get control of their lives rather than succumb to easy anomie or despair.
A fine example is to be found in one of the best stories, "The Eleventh Floor," wherein we meet Mr. Bradbury, who suffers from "Glu ckschmerz: the envy we feel upon hearing of the good fortune of others." He is a widower and is tired; he starts boozing it up each Saturday morning, indulges himself in bitter repartee, and snipes away at his son, a sometime college student. Yet, however unwittingly, he finds himself reconnected to life by Eric and his girlfriend, and he quits smoking:
"I quit in December. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought I was fixing to die. The outlines of my heart were all but visible under the skin, it hurt so much. I felt like a corpse ready for the anatomy lesson. So: I stopped. Imagine this. I threw my gold Dunhill lighter, the one your mother gave me, down the building's trash shaft, along with all the cigarettes in the house. I heard the lighter whine and clatter all the way to the heap at the bottom. What a scarifying loss was there. And how I miss the nicotine. But I wasn't about to go. I may look like Samuel Gompers, but I'm only fifty-two. I figured there must be more to life than patient despair, right?"
Right: It's the theme that echoes through all these stories, and a most attractive one it is. To be sure, the stories are not without their shortcomings; Baxter employs dreams to excess, and he drops the names of composers and compositions with such frequency that it seems more a matter of showing off musical knowledge than of making meaningful connections. Apart from other considerations, this is simply unnecessary because he can make a story sing on his own, without benefit of Beethoven or Brahms. He's an interesting, gifted writer, one of the more promising to come along in recent years.