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.