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Elevating the Ordinary

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, Charles Baxter, Pantheon Books (2011)

I have had the pleasure of hearing Charles Baxter read his work many times. He is very often introduced as a rock star of the short story. Another assertion is that he is regionalized. The stories are grounded in the Midwest and generally peopled with likable characters that lead small lives in which ordinary and yet poignant things happen. I often feel that I too am a Baxter character. Gryphon is a collection of twenty-three stories, new and selected. I have read these stories without hurry or care to reach the end; only to be astounded by the steady unveiling of character, spot on dialogue and the unembellished articulation of what it means to be human.

The Eleventh Floor is a father-son story. It is set in an upscale apartment; there’s reference to a Barcelona chair and a Lichtenstein on the wall, not to mention the comings and goings of a Peruvian housekeeper. Mr. Bradbury considers his drinking before lunch his weekend hobby. Eric is his college age son who is about to embark on a year long retreat to a cabin in the woods, but needs a bit of cash from Dad to do so. Mr. Bradbury’s response is “I didn’t think your generation indulged in such hefty idealism. I thought they were all designing computers and snorting the profits gram by gram. But this, a rustication, living in cabins and searching the soul, why, it’s positively Russian.” The following quote is an impressive example of Baxter’s enviable handling of subtext. “If your mother were still alive, I’d be getting all riled up and telling you to get settled down and finish your studies and all that sort of thing. Mothers don’t like it when their sons go off sulking into the woods.” The “rustication” doesn’t last, and when Eric next appears it is with Darlene, a grocery store cashier who we quickly learn has one year of community college, can tune a car, and suffers from insomnia. Dad’s retort, “Oh, I get it. You went up north looking for nature, and you found it, and you brought it back.” Offering unwanted embellishments he adds, “Overbite, straight hair, chapped hands, whopping tits, and all.” Eric and Darlene are in love, and while Mr. Bradbury finds Eric’s emotional gushing “deplorable” the story moves quickly to its finish. During a long wakeful night there are tender moments between Eric and Darlene that are secretly overheard or observed by Mr. Bradbury. “It wasn’t whispering so much as a drone from his son.” “Daisy and Tom and Jordon Baker undramatically droned into existence.” And later, eavesdropping, he watches Eric ceremoniously prepare a sandwich. For Eric and Darlene the night is passed with shared intimacies while Mr. Bradbury’s eleventh floor bedroom view is starkly singular.

The story about an unconventional fourth grade substitute teacher is also the book’s title, Gryphon. Our protagonist is one of the students. The first paragraph plunks you right down into the social structure of a primary school room. My personal memories come flooding back to me, and I can almost smell the tuna sandwiches packed in sack lunch bags and see them neatly stowed in multi-colored cubbies. We are in the Five Oaks community of Michigan and the supply of substitute teachers consists of about four mothers with community college degrees. Miss Ferenczi however, is not only an outsider she’s unorthodox. When one student recites the multiplication tables of six, he gets it wrong. Miss Ferenczi does not correct him, but one of the other students does. The teacher responds, “In higher mathematics, which you children do not yet understand, six times eleven can be considered to be sixty-eight.” She tells them that in “higher mathematics numbers are…more fluid.” Miss Ferenczi eats a stuffed fig, smoked sturgeon and raw spinach for lunch. The children wonder if it’s even food.  She has her own brand of history and offers a stream of consciousness lesson covering anthropology, biology, astronomy and death. “There is no death,” she offers. “That which is, cannot die.” She reads the children their tarot card fortunes. Turns out, some fourth graders aren’t too comfortable when fortune is fatal, while others begin to wonder what might be found between that which is as linear and prescribed as the Five Oaks primary school curriculum and that which is maybe not so much so.

I’ve read Fenstad’s Mother many times. It appeared in Best American Short Stories in 1989, and it is in the collection A Relative Stranger published by Norton in 2001. It is also included in Gryphon. Fenstad writes brochures in the publicity department of a computer company during the day, and teaches an extension English-composition class two nights a week. He loves to ice skate, especially late at night, and attends church. Fenstad’s mother, Clara, is a “lifelong social progressive who has spent her life in the company of rebels and deviationists.” She finds her son’s churchgoing “amusing.” It is mid January and Clara wants a change of pace. Fenstad suggests she come to the next composition class. He tells her the subject for the evening is logic. Once again we are in a classroom. Baxter presents a smorgasbord of night school students and all their range. There are a lot of people in this story, people with names and who are described and who drive the story forward – no small feat in a short work. In class, Fenstad asks the students what, if anything, is logically wrong with the following sentence. ‘I, like most people, have a unique problem.’ In other words, he says to the class, “what might be wrong with saying that most people have a unique problem?” The student’s are befuddled and come up with all sorts of answers and solutions that don’t relate to the question of semantics. As for me, I overthought it and things rapidly became circular. When pressed, Fenstad himself cannot think of a unique problem, which presumably is logically what’s wrong with the sentence. From the back of the room, Fenstad’s mother offers that problems aren’t personal, they are collective.  The class comes to an end. Weeks later, after many interesting and possibly debilitating incidences for Clara, and under surprising circumstances, she comes up with a lively announcement that proves the logic of Fenstad’s sentence.  Not only that, she permanently endears herself to us without sentimentality. Still, I occasionally go back to my circular reasoning, because the sentence, “I, like most people, have a unique problem” simply turns me upside down.  However, after I somersault around with my self-imposed conundrum three or four times, I find my feet back on the ground with Fenstad and his mother, two characters I don’t think of as fictional.

Baxter is the author of five novels and several short story collections. I have often referred to his nonfiction works, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction and The Art of Subtext-Beyond Plot for guidance and clarification. As for Gryphon, I have this to say.  A couple of years ago my husband and I visited Andalusia, the rural Georgia home of the late Flannery O’Connor.  When you are there, you can leaf through some of  O’Connor’s childhood books and see that many of them have handwritten comments on the pages.  I picked up one (and thanks to Craig at the Andalusia Foundation, I now know the name – it’s called Five Little Peppers and How They Grew). The inscription reads, “This is a first rate book and it belongs to M. F. O’Connor and don’t fiddle with it!”  I might just have to inscribe my copy of Gryphon similarly.

Comments

  1. Gretel Stephens says:

    Swell review. I am on my way to Vroman’s….

  2. Thanks Mel,

    I love Charles Baxter’s writing. Really enjoyed your article/review and will follow Gretel to the bookstore.

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