GRYPHON by Charles Baxter

Book Quote:

“Well, he had his triumph: the winner and his wife were in tears. The damn tears: against the riches of the world they changed almost nothing. But now Krumholtz felt a power surging through him. No one would dare move him from that comfortable position on the sofa… Krumholtz did not intend to budge: he would sit there, with his audience in front of his, elaborating this story of suffering and terror as long as he pleased. He had just gotten started.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd (FEB 18, 2011)

At their best, short stories contain all the truth and humanity of novels, rarefied works of formal and thematic elegance rarely achieved by their longer counterparts, and in his latest collection, Gryphon, Charles Baxter proves himself to be a master of the form. Every story in this collection is as subtle as it is excellent – 17 of the 24 stories here have been culled from earlier collections with 7 of the stories appearing for the first time in book form – and each character is robust and intriguing enough to ground a novel of their own. And while these wonderfully round characters are as varied as an aging woman faced with her mortality on her 52nd wedding anniversary to a kid-brother broaching the awareness of adolescence in the shadow of his reckless and irreverent older brother to a New York art dealer dealing with 9-11 and his longtime girlfriend’s miscarriage to a recovering alcoholic who befriends the murderer who just moved in next door to a Swedish man initiated into American life on the mean streets of Detroit, everyone is this book is looking for ways to transcend the ordinary, to shed the mundane.

In one of the best stories in this collection, “Harmony of the World,” a piano prodigy, Peter, leaves his “obstinately cheerful” family with their “pasted-on smiles like circus clowns” and his complacent town where excellence is considered “faintly anti-social” to pursue what he’s convinced will be a brilliant career as a concert pianist. However, in college he soon realizes in every small town there’s a genius, duly sent off to the amphitheatres of higher education to contend with each other. Peter practices tirelessly to keep himself ahead of the pack and he manages to attract enough notice to earn himself entrance to a top music school. However, there he quickly realizes he doesn’t have what it takes to be a real musician, and it begins to occur to him that for all his promise and hard work, his life is “evolving into something that has the taste of stale bread.” After a professor tells him that he lacks the passion to amount to much, he drops out of school and ends up writing a music column in an unnamed New York town. Trapped in the small town life of Christian good taste and middle class values of his youth, Peter likens the “grief without torment” Dante assigned to the unbaptised innocents in limbo to “the sounds one hears drifting from front porches in small towns on soft summer nights.”

It’s this same grief without torment that plagues Warren Banks, in “Westland,” unbeknownst to him until he returns a wayward teenager he’s met outside of the enclosure where the lions “weren’t caged, exactly; they just weren’t free to go” to her father. Her father, grateful for Warren’s assistance, asks him to dispose of the handgun he misguidedly gave his daughter for protection. Warren is a good man with a meaningful job (in social work), and a wife and kids who love him, but having the gun in his possession frees something hitherto locked up by socialization. The impotence of middle-class life comes to be unacceptable to him as the power represented by the gun injects his life with possibility. “After all,” he reasons, “ I had tried intelligence. Intelligence was not working, not with me, not in this world.” Now, Warren is able to throw himself into the role of loving husband and father, where previously he had unplugged, if only because he’s “front-loading a fantasy” that will take him, giddily, gun in hand, to a nearby unethical nuclear plant to exercise some of his newfound power.

In “Shelter,” Cooper struggles to overcome a similar sense of powerlessness. More specifically, Cooper cannot abide by the homelessness he sees everyday on his way to work. He tells his wife: “Every month there are more of them. Kids, men, women, everybody. It’s a horde. They’re sleeping in the arcade, and they’re pushing those terrible grocery carts around with all their worldly belongings, and it makes me nuts to watch them.” This anxiety – over the situation and his powerlessness to help – becomes unhinged and unintelligent, until his efforts succeed only in alienating him from those around him, including his own son.

Alienation is almost inevitable when you risk stepping out of the box, and the marvelous title story,  ”Gryphon,” captures the conservative pressure exerted in small communities when a foreign substitute teacher challenges a class of third graders to entertain the impossible.

In Baxter’s world, as in life, love is, as often as not, a hindrance to breaking the bonds of convention. In “Winter’s Journey,” Harrelson’s fiancé, Meredith, represents all the things – stability, responsibility, upward mobility – that he fights against, albeit indirectly, by refusing to finish his PhD and numbing himself with alcohol. Conversely, in “Kiss Away,” two young people who can’t see the point in respectable employment alone find the will to conform – and the beauty in existence –in their love for each other. And sometimes it is precisely the inability to step outside of your safety zone, away from financial stability and Christian good taste – as it is with the piano prodigy, Peter, in “Harmony of the World” – that blocks the road to love.

Baxter is a subtle and sophisticated writer, and each of these stories merits multiple readings. The only other writer I can call to mind who populates their stories with such vivid three-dimensional characters, and allows them all the complexities of life in such a dense space, is Alice Munro. For those familiar with Baxter’s work, “Gryphon” is a representative collection that can serve as a study in the emergence of his style – the stories span over 20 years of work. For those unfamiliar with this great writer, I can’t think of better introduction than this book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (January 11, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Charles Baxter
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February 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Character Driven, Short Stories

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