'Gryphon': Beautiful Stories For A Snowy Afternoon
Charles Baxter is a genius of the quotidian. From his earliest stories on, he has shown a gift for illuminating the surreal just below the surface of daily life. In five novels -- from First Light (1987) to The Soul Thief (2008) -- and four story collections, he has created a fictional universe both familiar and fabulous.
Most of the stories in Gryphon, his latest collection -- which includes seven new pieces and 16 others from past volumes -- are set in Minneapolis, Baxter's hometown; Detroit, where he taught at Wayne State for many years; and in a mythical rural community he calls Five Oaks, Mich. In all of these settings, Baxter's imagination is spacious, his prose style straightforward, and his characters truly eccentric. Many of his stories revolve around what happens when the unexpected intrudes upon routine.
In "Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second" (from 1984's Harmony of the World), a woman who has put her husband into a home (his faculties are gone) wakes on the morning of their 52nd anniversary to "an unfamiliar sun shining through a window she hadn't remembered was there." Baxter follows her compassionately on her own confused pathway toward forgetting.
In "Gryphon," the much anthologized title story first published in 1984, a palpably normal fourth-grader describes how a substitute teacher introduces him to the wonders of the imagination. Miss Ferenczi, the sub, tells the class about sea creatures thin as pancakes that explode when exposed to air; trees that eat meat; and the gryphon, an animal with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion she claims to have seen in Egypt. The casting out of the unconventional Miss Ferenczi is both precipitous and inevitable.
Baxter's newer stories are immersed in contemporary troubles yet ever more unmoored from physical reality.
"Royal Blue" tells of a handsome young New York art dealer whose worldview shifts after Sept. 11 and a visit to Granny Westerby, an Alaskan primitive artist whose specialty is "visionary Eros." ("I paint with sky," she explains; a typical piece is a wine bottle on which she has lettered in blue, "Fear and love his loins"). The mysteries of Granny's work weave together with his life back in New York.
"The Winner" follows a down-and-out journalist named Krumholz to the woods north of Lake Superior to interview a reclusive multimillionaire for a cover story in Success magazine. The farther afield he gets, the more Krumholz loses his grip. As usual, Baxter keeps us mesmerized to the end. Baxter brings to his masterful stories a quirky slant born of the straight-faced humor of the Midwest. His worldview encompasses the abrasiveness between the outsider and the native-born, the accepting shrug when life dishes out more than most can bear, and the fragile boundaries of neighborly life. His stories are closely observed and, in this generous selection, almost universally intriguing. Gryphon has my vote for the book I'd most want to have along for a snowbound weekend this winter.
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