The Short Version: Stories of relationships, often between those who should be close but who are in fact anything but. It’s all about those moments that come from parents and children and lovers discovering something about themselves or each other that makes some relative seem a stranger.
The Review: I had forgotten, even after how impressed I was by Baxter’s “Through the Safety Net” at Chuck Palahniuk’s Selected Shorts evening, that I’ve read Baxter before. In fact, I’ve read Baxter in direct relation to this collection: Saul and Patsy, a Biblioracle recommendation many moons ago.
And the short story that would later spawn that full novel, with the inversely longer title of “Saul and Patsy are Pregnant”, doesn’t feel that much different from what I remember reading. It was curious to see Saul and Patsy again and for memories to rush back while reading, knowing that they would (after rolling the car) go to the house of Saul’s former student… and that later they would have sex at the window after the scene on the bike… it was like these memories were coming up on me just before I actually read them. It was delightfully disorientating – and completely different from how I’d experience the rest of this collection. I just had to get it out of the way, because that disorientation came from knowing the further version of a story first… and the rest of these stories were all new to me.
My favorite pieces actually came towards the beginning of the collection. I was astounded, consistently, by the way that Baxter was able to drop me into a fully formed scene – or, perhaps more accurately, that the scene Baxter created was so effortlessly and immediately imprinted upon my mind. Short stories, while they’re a delightful form, rarely have the same impact (to me) that a full-length story can (just the sheer amount of time, comparatively, that the reader can spend with characters/circumstances in a novel vs. in a short story, for one example) but Baxter’s work defies that easy dichotomy. Fenstad and his mother, for example: I can see them, even now, in my mind. I can see that whole story as though I spent a few days with them when in reality it was minutes, a single sitting. And yet the story has a potency that makes it memorable far beyond what I could’ve ever expected.
There are other stories in the collection like this – “Snow” and “Westland” immediately jump to mind, and most of the rest of the work is quite good as well. The problem, if it can be called that, comes when some of Baxter’s stories are just good instead of magically and potently imprinted. The title story, for example: I could see the effort, could feel the authorial creativity, instead of it just splashing down upon me like a sudden rain shower.
Even “Saul and Patsy are Pregnant” has those moments, as did the novel it later spawned: there are spots where Baxter’s sheer talent is made clear, but there are also spots where it is almost too clear. He’s one of those writers, it seems, who can almost be “too good” at times. You almost want to say “heyyyy, ease back a little bit, you got this!” in the hopes that the story will relax just a little.
But, then, it might be worth some of the just-good stories to get to gems like the ones that open this collection or like “Through the Safety Net”. No matter what, you will be entertained. It’s almost impossible not to be.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A very strong collection and an excellent introduction to Charles Baxter’s work – including for someone like me, who’d already had two introductions and sort of forgotten about either of them until all the pieces clicked together some time later. When Baxter is on, he is ON: the writing just stamps into your head like a memory you didn’t know you had suddenly coming up on you in the middle of the day. It’s really something else and I can’t think of too many other writers so skillful in their craft. It makes some of Baxter’s other stories shine a little less brightly than they might otherwise, but only by comparison – if you read “The Old Fascist in Retirement” as a standalone, before anything else, I’ll bet you’d be knocked down just the same as you would if you read “Fenstad’s Mother” in the same manner. I can’t wait to read more.