Charles Baxter,
Gryphon: New & Selected Stories
(Pantheon, 2011)

It's no secret that the short story is not at its zenith right now. Once the staple of mass-market magazines, it is now relegated to the unread pages of a few literary journals and the literary short story has become as formulaic as genre fiction: no more than 3,000 words, a slice of life rather than a carefully constructed plot, its resolution an epiphany.

As one of our major novelists once told me, she would love to write more short stories, but neither editors nor readers want them; they'd much rather, she said, lose themselves in a long piece that has more character development.

If all of this is bad news, Charles Baxter either hasn't heard it or refuses to listen. Baxter's stock in trade is the traditional short story, which is characterized by an emphasis on characters in conflict, struggling to resolve their problems and find a way to go on. Baxter's stories take characters at the end of their rope and dramatize the most important moment in their lives: the moment when they learn what they need to know in order to change or fail to learn and remain the same forever.

Baxter adopts the traditional story as his major form (though he has published several novels) and this book collects stories from 1984 through the present. The result is amazing. Baxter writes of students in an elementary school who are presented with a substitute teacher who claims that 6 times 11 is 68, just one of what she calls substitute facts. Other substitute facts: unquenchable fires burn just below the surface of the Earth in Ohio, the baby Mozart went into a dead faint when he first heard the sound of a trumpet and anyone conceived during an eclipse would be born with webbed feet. When she wants to reward her students, she gives them tarot readings. The story, of course, is about the effects she has on the kids.

In "Winter Journey" we get a variation on the archetypal Journey of the Hero. A perpetual graduate student named Harrelson is drunk in his apartment during as snowstorm when his fiancee calls, needing a ride home. Harrelson drives through the snowy night drunk, unable to navigate the slippery roads, sideswiping two cars, wrecking his own until he arrives, thinking he has performed heroically while his fiancee is disgusted with him. Harrelson learns that his romantic fate was sealed a few days before the incident.

Gryphon is a wonderful book. Each story is magical, a trip into the mind and soul of the central characters that always results in a universal truth that applies as much to the reader as to the character. It's a book you can't get out of your mind.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

2 April 2011

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