Gryphon: New & Selected Stories

Gryphon by Charles Baxter
Gryphon is a collection of stories written by Charles Baxter. They take place in Minnesota and Michigan, many in the bleakness of winter. The lives of the characters are conventional; there are no great epiphanies. Yet, the stories captivate in a way similar to those of Alice Munro and William Trevor.

What makes Baxter a great short story writer is his ability to completely engage the reader in stories where there is little action. Although soothsayers appear as grotesque, homeless men and tarot cards yield vague futures, the characters remain unchanged by their discoveries and continue in their mundane lives. A particularly good example of this is in the story, "Shelter." In it, Cooper, who dropped out of law school to become a baker, finds contentment in both his marriage and his craft. He is especially cheered by the warm feeling the smell of freshly-baked bread gives his 7 a.m. customers. But his peace is shattered by the image of the mentally unstable beggars he sees on the street.

"You're such a good person," his wife says to him.
"No, that's wrong," Cooper replies. "This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn't interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people."

How often do we give money but avert our eyes, feeling guilty for our own good fortune? The author takes this feeling one step further. He has Cooper volunteer at a shelter, and then, invite one of its residents (Billy) to his bakery, and later, to his home for dinner. His prosecutor wife proceeds to interrogate the homeless man, sensing a wantonness there that her husband fails to see. And indeed, she proves to be correct.

The characters in this story, as in all the stories, are fully drawn. In a few pages, we learn some of their histories, and certainly, understand their motives. The reader, through the eyes of the wife, sees the true nature of Billy even though Cooper does not. We expect something horrible to occur, but nothing does. What happens in the end is that a clear picture of Cooper is revealed, but not Cooper's awareness of it.

In another story, "Fenstad's Mother," the central character is a writer of brochures in the publicity department of a computer company. At night, he teaches English to working class people hoping to better themselves. Like Cooper, Fenstad lacks self-awareness, but believes he is a devout and good person. On Sunday mornings, after communion, he often visits his mother. "How's your soul, Harry? she asks him. "What's the news."

By contrast, his mother has a truly kind heart. The mother does not hesitate to give a homeless woman her coat or befriend one of Fenstad's inner-city students. She is not put off by poverty, as is Harry. And whereas Fenstad takes himself seriously, and is looking for perfection in a mate, his mother has a more realistic picture: "Harry, why does your generation always have to find the right person? Why can't you learn to live with the wrong person? Sooner or later everyone's wrong..." (p. 121)

Both of these stories are representative of the entire collection. We can easily identify with the strengths and weaknesses of Baxter's characters, as well as their hopes and dreams. Charles Baxter portrays average, Midwestern people striving to make sense of their inner and outer worlds. The fact that most do not succeed, that they live with dimmed insights, makes them all the more human.

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