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From Barnes & NobleThe Shelf Life of Happiness
Charles Baxter's brilliant first novel, First Light, is the only book I've read in adulthood that made me actually weep. It's the story of a stolid, stay-at-home brother and his passionate, globe-trotting sister, told in backwards chronology: Each chapter begins at a point in time soon before the previous chapter ends (thus, surprisingly and inevitably, ending with the birth of the little sister). The book's epigraph, tellingly, is from Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
Maybe it all sounds like one of those self-conscious gimmicks that British po-mo bad boys deploy in lieu of writing books with any real heart. (Four years after First Light, in fact, came Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, told in reverse chronology; to be charitable, it was not Amis's best book.) But heart is something Baxter has in abundance. Not only does he make the device work, he tells the story in a way that makes the structure seems utterly natural.
In real life, after all, falling in love does happen in reverse chronology. You learn the person's present, become enamored, and then, inexorably, come to learn about the past. That's First Light: You fall in love with the characters and then, now that you care, learn about their pasts.
And so it's with deep admiration for that novel, and for Baxter's short stories, that I now say this: His new novel, The Feast of Love, is his best work yet. It is to love in a midwestern town what The Things They Carried is to the burden of Vietnam.
Reviewers have often painted Baxter an earnest realist, perhaps because he is a midwesterner and writes about midwesterners (mostly Michiganders, which might be the most earnest proper noun in our language). What's special about Baxter's work, though, is how it's realistic on the surface, capturing the rhythms and longings of recognizable people—city managers, coffee shop owners, janitors, deaf children, aging teachers—but, right underneath, a mixture of classical storytelling devices and gentle but brainy postmodernism.
Take, for example, Baxter's most widely anthologized short story, "Gryphon" (collected in Through The Safety Net). It was inspired by Baxter's own experience teaching fourth grade in Michigan's bleak Saginaw Valley, which he did right out of college to get a deferment that kept him out of Vietnam. One day, Baxter found himself woefully unprepared for class and, on a whim, handled the lesson plan's edict to teach the students about ancient Egypt by making everything up. In the story, though, everything's told from the point of view of one of the kids, and the faux Egyptology is dispensed by an eccentric substitute teacher who also tells them that 6 times 11 is sometimes 68, that George Washington died because of a mistake about a diamond, and that she herself once traveled to Egypt and saw with her own eyes, in a cage, a half-bird, half-lion creature called a gryphon.
The story captures that (largely justified) feeling in childhood that everything you're learning in school is a big fat lie (most of what the sub tells them is strange but semifactual, like the one about "how Washington was not the first true president, but she didn't say who was"; technically, that would be Peyton Randolph, president of the first Continental Congress). Though the narrator's too young to intuit this, the story implies that the sub has just been dumped by some guy, which has left her distracted and without the time or sense of obligation necessary to prepare to teach a subject in which she is not trained.
But the story also has the zing of the fantastic (imagine Donald Barthelme in an unironic and superficially realistic mode) as well as the classical: not only because of the classical allusions but also because it is, after all, a stranger-comes-to-town story, one of two most basic tales. (As Eudora Welty once remarked, there are only two basic stories: Somebody leaves or a stranger comes to town. Everything is either one or the other or a combination thereof. Think about it: the Old Testament—somebody leaves. The New Testament—a stranger comes to town. Etc.)
When Baxter set out to write fiction, he was deeply influenced by his wide, wildly diverse reading in philosophy, criticism, and world literature (particularly Lars Gustafsson's Stories of Happy People and Robert Musil's 1,774-page The Man Without Qualities). His first three (unpublished) novels were in the Barth/Barthelme mode, and his earliest published stories came when he took those novels and boiled each down to its 15-page essence. His subsequent novels have quite consciously been composed not of one continuous narrative but rather story-sized units from different perspectives. Although in interviews Baxter has been self-deprecating about this, saying he's done it out of his own failures, he's very much taught himself to turn that failure into his advantage.
First Light, again realistic on its surface, shows in its structure Baxter's continued interest in the intellectual complexities of story, but The Feast of Love is the best synthesis of everything that's preoccupied Baxter as a writer, and everything he has heretofore done well.
The book is foursquare about happy love, even if the shelf life of that happiness is mournfully finite. On the surface, it's an engrossing, engaging collection of intersecting first-person monologues. The two main characters are Bradley Smith, twice-divorced owner of a coffee shop at the mall, and Chloé, one of his much-pierced teenaged employees, who is besotted with love for Oscar, another coffee shop clerk. In addition, Baxter creates amazingly convincing portraits of Bradley's ex-wives and of their lovers and of his next-door neighbor, a 60-something professor of Kierkegaardian philosophy at the University of Michigan.
All of this is drawn together by a character named Charlie Baxter, who both is and mostly isn't the writer, the same way that the Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried both is but mostly isn't Tim O'Brien the actual person (who was, actually, the student government president at Macalester College the same time Baxter was the editor of the literary magazine).
It's a device for our times, a way of acknowledging and skewering the culture's appalling habit of reading fiction merely to decode it for autobiography. The Charlie Baxter of the novel is, like the author, a professor at the University of Michigan. He lives on the author's street and shares the author's problem with insomnia. Oscar and Chloé plan to kick off their honeymoon by going to see a band called the School of Velocity; the author's son plays in a band by the same name, and the author writes lyrics for the band's songs.
None of which helps the reader better understand the novel, or is of more than voyeuristic interest, but which allows Baxter to use a storytelling device that is at once ancient (think of how Chaucer shapes The Canterbury Tales) and postmodern (unreliable narrator, direct address of the reader, moving a story forward with the spaces and gaps withing the story), all to create a novel that is 100 percent Charles Baxter.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including the novelThe Veracruz Blues.