There's Something I Want You to Do: stories by Charles Baxter


Book Review: There's Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter. (Pantheon, 240 pages) This review was originally published in the Boston Globe on February 6, 2015. 

There is a direct link between the fable and the fabulous, and the fiction of the beloved Charles Baxter has explored it for more than four decades, in novels such as the National Book Award-nominated “The Feast of Love” (2000), a reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ set in a 20th-century college town, and “Saul and Patsy” (2003), the intimate story of a marriage threatened by obsession.

Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He now teaches at the University of Minnesota. His new story collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do,” is mostly set in the Twin Cities, and we witness, from different angles, the same scenarios again and again, with one story’s protagonist reappearing as a minor actor in someone else’s tale later on. Baxter edited “Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories” (2012) for the Library of America, and Anderson’s influence is obvious here; “There’s Something I Want You to Do” is in many ways Baxter’s “Winesburg, Ohio,’’ an intimate look at the emotional lives of everyday folks sharing the same geography.

It’s Baxter’s presence as the gentle overseer of this fictional Minneapolis that gives “There’s Something I Want You to Do” an old-fashioned feeling not too different from the relationship Garrison Keillor has to his own Minnesota community of Lake Wobegon, or that of the Stage Manager to the residents of Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” In the story “Avarice,” an aging widow, visits her husband’s grave, “here under the balding blue sky with its wisps of white hair.” While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.

It is Baxter, after all, who has created these characters and their lives and assigned them to stories labeled like a book of fables, each one named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Vanity). In their weaker moments they can read as morality tales, preachy and unreal. Yet at their best, Baxter’s humanity and imagination reveal the magical aspects of everyday life, as in “Chastity,” when Benny Takemitsu recalls meeting his wife as she stood on the edge of a bridge, about to jump, and realizes that it was her love of pranks and jokes that kept her alive: “[W]hat he mistook for a charade and a pastime, a stunt, a form of harmless amateur wickedness, was for her a tether that tied her to the earth.” That ghostly connection lingers in the imagination — Benny’s and ours.

Baxter seems most engaged with his characters when writing in first person, as in “Loyalty,” in which a mechanic named Wes describes his extended family. “She has tried to keep it a secret from me” Wes says of his mother, the aforementioned Dolores, “but I know my mother was and is interested in extraterrestrials (although she is a registered Republican).” That parenthetical reveals a lot about Wes, a deeply philosophical man who would never describe himself that way.

When Wes looks at his depressed ex-wife who has returned to his doorstep and realizes “I have to let her remain here if she wants to. She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins,” it’s clear Baxter has the same feeling of duty to his characters. A flash of Flannery O’Connor’s percipient gaze sometimes falls across these stories of sadness and loss, but in Baxter’s rendering, the mistakes and foolishness of the human race are registered with compassion rather than O’Connor’s chilly, if brilliant, detachment.

Although Baxter never steps in to mingle with his characters like the Stage Manager in “Our Town,’’ he’s always there on the sidelines cheering them on. In the story “Charity,” another first-person narrative, Harry tends to the illness of his addicted boyfriend. “Do you think anything is watching us?” the boyfriend asks. “No,” Harry says. “Nothing is ever watching us, Matty. We’re all unwatched.” But you have to wonder if Harry — or Baxter — really believes that’s true.

Love, God, Murder: Johnny Cash


Book Review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown), 679 pp.

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 27, 2013.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”

Don't Put Me in a Skirt


Review: Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke (HarperCollins, 340 pages).

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2014.


In London, 1951, a crowd gathered as a woman attempted to board a bus while wearing one of Christian Dior’s newest creations: the New Look. “Her skirt was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door. At first I laughed along with everyone else,” recalled Grace Robertson, a then twenty-one-year-old aspiring photojournalist. “But then I suddenly thought: are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?” [xix] Only one year into the decade and already some women were starting to get the hint.

In Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, journalist Rachel Cooke reveals that British women’s experiences during World War II radically rearranged their expectations of what life would be like afterward. Having survived the Blitz and served their country during wartime, the idea of turning their backs on engaged, professional lives was often unthinkable.

Her Brilliant Career aims to dispel the myth of what a “Fifties woman” was: “old-fashioned, unambitious, docile, emollient, inhibited, clenched, prudish, thwarted, frustrated, [and] repressed.” [xii] Cooke tells the stories of ten vibrant, fascinating women who came into their own after the war. While a few of them were frustrated, thwarted, and even repressed at times, they never stopped trying to lead meaningful lives.

Patience Gray, author of the best-selling British cookbook of the 1950s, Plats du Jour (1957), guided a nation emerging from years of rationing (Cooke describes wartime cookbooks that offered recipes for cooking crows, sparrows, and “eggs that are really tinned apricots fried in bacon fat” [3]). Gray is notable not only for her salutary influence on British cooking, but for the unorthodox choices she made later in life.

A single mother who once gave her teenagers money to hitchhike back to London—they were vacationing in Italy at the time—Gray was always a little different. [35] At age 46 she decamped for Italy with the great love of her life, the sculptor Norman Mommens. “We shed a snakeskin of fuss, plans, hesitations, and other people’s claims,” [39] Gray explained, and they left.

The couple lived together “hand-to-mouth” [39] in a rustic Italian barn with no plumbing for the next forty years (“It was with some reluctance,” Cooke writes,[40] that electricity was installed in the 1990s). This experience informed Gray’s next and equally influential cookbook, Honey from a Weed (1986), which predated twenty-first century foodies’ interest in foraging and eating locally, remaining in print and influential to this day. Gray wasn’t totally averse to traditional ideas, however; thirty years after they met, she and Mommens were married. She never returned to England.

Not every woman was as Bohemian as Patience Gray. The pioneering architect Alison Smithson’s adamant sense of modernity, exemplified in the landmark buildings she created with her husband and creative partner Peter Smithson, brought her admiration and controversy. “We’re the best architects in the world,” she liked to say. It wasn’t merely an unusual statement coming from a woman; as one of her contemporaries recalled. “It wasn’t very English at all.” [105]

Film producer Betty Box demanded the same pay as her male counterparts and became one of the most successful producers in history—her nickname was “Betty Box Office.” [206] And while the celebrated archaeologist and author Jacquetta Hawkes enjoyed a series of professional achievements and affairs with both men and women, her life was conducted “with a careful public smoothness” [248] after marrying writer J.B. Priestley at age 43. “Let me have the guts to behave badly,” Hawkes wrote to a friend, and [249] eventually at age seventy, she published a scandalous sexual quasi-memoir entitled A Quest for Love, and did. [252]

It’s Rachel Cooke’s intention to “make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the war and feminism” and to “pull the reader along” with these tales of “derring-do.” [xxv] She succeeds on every count. Thanks to Cooke’s deep research, buoyant storytelling, and her sincere affection for the ten remarkable women portrayed here, Her Brilliant Career is both entertaining and touching. Give it to any enterprising, smart woman you know: although she may never have heard their names, she’ll recognize these women right away. Women who, like journalist Nancy Spain, “didn’t want to meet anyone who would make me put on a skirt.” [52]

To remain in its arms forever: John Darnielle's WOLF IN WHITE VAN


Book review: WOLF IN WHITE VAN, by John Darnielle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014), 209 pp.

I could explain that Wolf in White Van is a beautiful novel about pain. That it's the story of a teenaged boy who tried and failed to kill himself and has to live with the results. Or that it's the map of the world a damaged young man creates, first in his imagination, then in the form of a multiplayer mail-order game called Trace Italian, that saves his life — makes his life possible, after the accident — but kills someone else inadvertently. That's it's a novel told backwards, all action pulling back toward the horrible event itself, the horrible event becoming a kind of black hole of plot, its gravity drawing the reader through the story steadily, relentlessly, finally. Or I could describe it as a study in Zen, though the word is never used in the book, a lesson in accepting reality and letting go of judgment. It's a kind of detachment that's not easy to pull off in any case, but especially when the reaction to your appearance is simply, "Dude, your face."

"People don't usually understand this when I try to explain it, which is why I've stopped trying, nor will ever try again, no not in courtrooms nor in conferences: but when it came down to the actual moment, I was trying to make the right decision." This is Sean Phillips, years later, remembering but not exactly explaining, why he picked up that gun one night in high school. Wolf in White Van is Sean Phillips afterward, the Sean Phillips who found, somewhere in the blank - but not actually blank - white ceiling of his hospital room, a way to keep on living after the fact. "You could let your attention rest there for a while; you could imagine the future of the ceiling, the battles playing out up there, camps pitched when the building was new back in unremembered time… You can see the ceiling in the next room, following the splits of the ceiling in its neighbor, and the one beyond that in turn and then the greater canvas, the sky at night gone flat and painted white, the constellations in the cracking paint, the dust the cracks brings into being as they form, finding free land where none had been before their coming."

In the nothingness that is Sean's new life, he creates something: Trace Italian, a game of strategy in which players try to make their slow, hesitant, dangerous way to the center of an nightmarish North America and Kansas, where the great walled fortress-the Trace Italian- offers safety at last. In the year after his accident, Sean wrote all the possible moves to the game; now, years later, he mails them out, one by one, to long-distance players he'll never meet. Trace Italian is his life, metaphorically and really, his livelihood and his place of safety. His players stalk the imaginary landscape, move by move, but not Sean, master of the game. "I remain in the stasis of the opening scene, bits of gravel sticking to my face, cold night coming on. I am strong enough to endure it. I am strong enough to remain in its arms forever. I won't get up; I have seen the interior once. I'm not going back. One thing I've learned is it's better sometimes, in the weeds, to resist the temptation to stand up and follow the compass."

I can't tell you much more about Wolf in White Van other than this: you should read it. It's a mystery novel, in its own way. As soon as I finished it I was tempted to immediately begin reading again but I stopped myself. I will read it again. But not to solve the mystery, which can't be solved. At least, I don't think so. If I find out something different, I'll let you know.

Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.

Truth, Justice, & Polyamory: Wonder Woman

Book review: THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 410 pp.) This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 23, 2014.

Who is Wonder Woman? She is, of course, the Amazonian superhero fighting for women’s rights, with a secret agenda that included securing access to birth control, free love, and the importance of erotic bondage — preferably chains — in uniting two (or more) lovers in polyamory. Not what you expected? Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, author of the new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’’ is here to tell you: You have no idea.

As Lepore explains, Wonder Woman’s history was “a family secret, locked in a closet.” That’s because the trio of people who inspired and created her, renegade psychologist and eventual comic-book writer William Moulton Marston, career woman and editor Elizabeth Holloway, and writer Olive Byrne, beloved niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, were determined that it be so. The three were in fact a threesome (a fourth woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, also lived with the trio off and on for decades) and together raised four children, two of Holloway’s and two of Byrne’s, all sired by Marston. Marston and Holloway were legally married; Byrne was usually described as a live-in governess, widowed with two children. The children didn’t know the truth until they were well into adulthood.

The first half of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman’’ tells the story of these three and the world of radical politics in which they lived. They were activists in the struggles for women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and equal rights of the early 1900s, participating in bohemian Greenwich Village salons in which socialism, androgyny, and free love were explored.

They also shared a belief in what Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power,” a vision of a woman-centric world not too different from the kind you’d find in Amazonia, Wonder Woman’s hometown. It was a thrilling time; women were granted the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. The prospect of legal gender equality seemed inevitable.

Marston had been a staunch feminist since his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he studied psychology. He was fascinated by the male-female relationship, and his theories of dominance and submission influenced not only his personal relationships but also the superhero he would eventually create. (“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage,” says Lepore, a fetish that eventually became the target of morality crusaders in the 1950s.) Perhaps because Marston’s private life was kept secret, he was also obsessed with the ways in which people suppress the truth, an interest that led to his invention of one of the first lie-detector tests.

It was only when Lepore encountered Marston’s name in two disparate archives — first in the history of the lie-detector test and then in the papers of Margaret Sanger — that the secret history was revealed. Marston himself was always frank about his political agenda. In the cover letter he wrote to DC accompanying his first “Wonder Woman” script he argued that the comic would chronicle “a great movement now under way — the growth in the power of women . . . Let that theme alone . . . or drop the project.” “The only hope for civilization,” Marston wrote in a “Wonder Woman” press release, “is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.’’

Marston’s career as a psychologist was hurt by rumors of his unconventional family life, and he struggled to find work. He was eventually hired as a consulting psychologist at DC Comics as a sort of bulwark against the growing societal concerns that comics were immoral and overly violent. Marston answered the critics with the idea for a new character: Wonder Woman.

As Lepore shows, in the original comics created and written by Marston beginning in 1941, “Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist” who fought for justice and also explicitly for women’s rights, “organizing boycotts, strikes, and political rallies” and protesting the wage gap between men and women. “’Girls, starting now your salaries are doubled!’” Wonder Woman proclaimed in a 1942 comic.

What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman’s career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women’s movement in the 20th century. When American women began entering the workforce during World War II, Wonder Woman was at her strongest, battling evil and refusing to settle down and get married (Amazonian law forbade it). After the war ended and women were hustled back into the home, Wonder Woman’s power likewise faded.

The big changes took place after Marston died in 1947 and other writers took over the series. No longer a crime fighter, now she was “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She [also] wanted, desperately, to marry Steve.” By the late 1960s she had lost her superpowers altogether. Although she was reclaimed by feminists in the early 1970s and appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine’s first issue under the banner, “Wonder Woman For President,” her status as a feminist icon withered.

Marston’s widows lived into the 1990s and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They “never broke their silence” about the truth of their relationship or of Wonder Woman’s radical past. As women who were young when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923, you have to wonder what they thought about the fact that it was never ratified. And were they depressed by the fact that Americans were still arguing about abortion a century after Margaret Sanger began fighting for women’s reproductive rights? There’s a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore’s “secret history” has proved one thing, it’s that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.