Assemble a group of wildly different characters — young and old, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight. Throw them together — on an L.A. highway (“Crash”), in a steamy Southern city (“Nashville”), or in Times Square before the ball drops (“New Year’s Eve”). Some characters will collide to change one another’s lives; others will pass each other like ships in the night. Moviegoers are thoroughly comfortable with this kind of episodic structure, partly from decades of watching TV serials in which multiple plot lines are intertwined.
Surprisingly, the fictional equivalent of the ensemble movie is not the novel, no matter how enormous its cast or byzantine its plot. It’s the collection of connected short stories. Charles Baxter’s sixth book of short fiction, “There’s Something I Want You To Do,” shows him as a master of the genre and highlights what finely crafted short stories can accomplish better than any art form. Even those characters who seem hopelessly sunk into their daily struggles are revealed as part of a larger pattern of interconnections.
Most of the 10 stories are set in Minneapolis, where Baxter lives. The Mississippi River winds cinematically through many of the recounted lives. In one story, Sarah, a pianist turned comedian, tries to fling herself into that river off the Stone Arch Bridge. Architect Benny saves her — then marries her. Benny gets brutally mugged while strolling near the bridge; in another story, we meet the guilt-ridden mugger, a former African aid volunteer turned drug addict who is homeless and living under the bridge. Elijah, a pediatrician, delivers Benny’s son in one story, and in another breaks the news that a young girl is dying to the girl’s heartbroken aunt, a translator who has flown in from Tuscany. It’s not hard to imagine that Wes, an auto mechanic whose dysfunctional, long-absent ex-wife has suddenly deposited herself into the life of his new family, runs the very shop where Elijah will bring his car after a near-fatal accident. In the movie version, Wes’s mother, dying of breast cancer, would certainly pass Elijah in the halls of the hospital.
Each story bears as its title a vice or a virtue: “Loyalty,” “Sloth” and so forth. Even in the stories that feature casual encounters — such as a gay man striking up a conversation with a homophobic Holocaust survivor on an airplane — Baxter makes a claim for moral heft. At the heart of the stories is the question of what we owe to strangers, a line of inquiry that has long haunted Baxter’s work. As Benny says, “A panhandle was like a scream: you never knew what was appropriate, how much help to offer, what to do.”
The clash of faith and secularism in the Midwest is particularly fertile ground for Baxter. There are good people on both sides — religious and secular — and Baxter delights in watching their belief systems clash. In “Gluttony,” pediatrician Elijah, now struggling with a weight problem, visits the conservative, accusatory parents of a girl whom his son has impregnated. God doesn’t come to him in his visions; Alfred Hitchcock does. “When you got down to the heart of things,” the doctor muses after the encounter, “you found desolation. Even in the midst of joy, you would find it. But you would find joy everywhere too.”
You don’t need to read much further than the titles of these stories to know that Baxter doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about life and death, and indeed many of the stories are haunted by loss and grief. But the stories aren’t gloomy; on the contrary, they’re often funny, buoyant. Baxter is most focused on love, both romantic and familial. As he showed in “The Feast of Love,” a 2000 National Book Award finalist, Baxter is wonderful at capturing the delicate mysteries of courtship, how couples size each other up, how “sometimes you arrive at love before going through the first stage of attraction.” Baxter is equally articulate about how feelings change in long-term marriages. Here Elijah muses about his wife, Susan, in the later years of their union:
“He felt his love flaring up for her: he remembered exactly how beautiful she looked when they first met years ago in San Francisco and saw how she appeared to the world now, the result of what their lives together had done to her, and the two versions of her, the young and the . . . well, she wasn’t old, exactly, weathered was maybe a better word, touched him with an electric intensity that made it hard for him to breathe. How he loved her!”
In his influential essay “Against Epiphanies,” Baxter decried the “phony aura” of stories that end with a thunderbolt of insight. As he once complained to an interviewer: “If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides . . . I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!”
In “There’s Something I Want You To Do,” Baxter shows how a short story can feel complete, whole and satisfying but still realistic in its jagged, elusive inconclusiveness.
Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University at Camden.
THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon. 221 pp. $24