The 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 peoplecity managers, coffee shop owners, janitors, deaf children, aging teachersbut, 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 Testamentsomebody leaves. The New Testamenta 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.
Feast of Love is a radiant work of art that evokes the romance that the characters describe. To find out how things play out for this extraordinary bunch of ostensibly ordinary Midwesterners, pick up this funny, sad, gorgeous novel.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Baxter (First Light, Harmony of the World, Believers) has for too long been a writer's writer whose books have enjoyed more admirers than sales. Pantheon appears confident that his new novel can be his breakout work. It certainly deserves to be. In a buoyant, eloquent and touching narrative, Baxter breaks rules blithely as he goes along, and the reader's only possible response is to realize how absurd rules can be. Baxter begins, for example, as himself, the author, waking in the middle of the night and going out onto the predawn streets of Ann Arbor (where Baxter in fact lives). Meeting a neighbor, Bradley Smith, with his dog, also called Bradley, he is told the first of the spellbinding stories of love -- erotic, wistful, anxious, settled, ecstatic and perverse -- that make up the book, woven seamlessly together so they form a virtuosic ensemble performance. The small cast includes Bradley, who runs the local coffee shop called Jitters; Diana, a tough-minded lawyer and customer he unwisely marries after the breakup of his first marriage to dog-phobic Kathryn; Diana's dangerous lover, David; Chloe and Oscar, two much-pierced punksters who are also Jitters people and who enjoy the kind of sensual passion older people warn will never last, but that for them lasts beyond the grave; Oscar's evil and lustful dad; philosophy professor Ginsberg, who pines for his missing and beloved son, Aaron; and Margaret, the black emergency room doctor with whom Bradley eventually finds a kind of peace. The action takes place over an extended period, but such is the magic of Baxter's telling that it seems to be occurring in the author's mind on that one heady midsummer night. His special gift is to catch the exact pitch of a dozen voices in an astutely observed group of contemporary men and women, yet retain an authorial presence capable of the most exquisite shadings of emotion and passion, longing and regret. Some magical things seem to happen, even in Ann Arbor, but the true magic in this luminous book is the seemingly effortless ebb and flow of the author's clear-sighted yet deeply poetic vision.
Extraordinary . . . Rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud
funny and completely engrossing . . . What's
amazing -- but never distracting -- is how
distinctive Baxter makes the different voices of all
The New York Times Book Review
The different longings people subsume within the actions of loving others are explored with wry affection: an extremely likable third novel from the celebrated author (Believers, 1997; Shadow Play, 1993, etc.) It consists of stories told to author Charles Baxter by several of his mutually involved neighbors, beginning when `Charlie,` strolling his hometown's nearly deserted streets on an insomniac midsummer night, sneaks into Michigan Stadium and observes a young couple making love on the football field's 50-yard line, then meets his neighbor Bradley Smith, who (not entirely credibly) pours out the tale of losing his wife Kathryn to another woman. The scope steadily expands, as we become acquainted with Kathryn's version of her marriage's failure, Bradley's dog (also named Bradleya rather Anne Taylor-touch); then, in roughly this order, teenaged Chloé (who waitresses at the coffee shop Bradley runs) and her `reformed boy outlaw` sweetheart Oscar; Bradley's next-door neighbor Harry Ginsberg, a doggedly idealistic philosophy professor whose familial happiness is threatened by the anger of his estranged son; Bradley's new wife Diana (who continues her affair with her married lover David); and, yes, others. The Feast of Love achieves an eccentric, fascinating rhythm about halfway through, when its characters' now-established individual stories begin bouncing off one another intriguingly. The novel is quite skillfully (if unconventionally) plotted, and grips the reader's emotions surely as Baxter connects its distinctive dots during some absorbing climactic actions, when the genuine love between Chloé and Oscar (two wonderfully realized characters) takes onanunexpected maturity and gravity. Just a shade too warm and fuzzy to be fully successful, but awfully entertaining nevertheless. And the Joycean monologue (spoken by Chloé) and graceful acknowledgement of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with which Baxter ends this rueful tale of romantic folly, are the perfect touches.
From the Publisher
“Superb—a near-perfect book, as deep as it is broad in its humaneness, comedy and wisdom.”–The Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
The man -- me, this pale being, no one else, it seems -- wakes in fright, tangled up in the sheets.
The darkened room, the half-closed doors of the closet and the slender pine-slatted lamp on the bedside table: I don't recognize them. On the opposite side of the room, the streetlight's distant luminance coating the window shade has an eerie unwelcome glow. None of these previously familiar objects have any familiarity now. What's worse, I cannot remember or recognize myself. I sit up in bed -- actually, I lurch in mild sleepy terror toward the vertical. There's a demon here, one of the unnamed ones, the demon of erasure and forgetting. I can't manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn't working, and because it, the flesh in which I'm housed, hasn't yet become me.
Looking into the darkness, I have optical floaters: there, on the opposite wall, are gears turning separately and then moving closer to one another until their cogs start to mesh and rotate in unison.
Then I feel her hand on my back. She's accustomed by now to my night amnesias, and with what has become an almost automatic response, she reaches up sleepily from her side of the bed and touches me between the shoulder blades. In this manner the world's objects slip back into their fixed positions.
"Charlie," she says. Although I have not recognized myself, apparently I recognize her: her hand, her voice, even the slight saltine-cracker scent of her body as it rises out of sleep. I turn toward her and hold her in my arms, trying to get my heart rate under control. She puts her hand to my chest. "You've been dreaming," she says. "It's only a bad dream." Then she says, half-asleep again, "You have bad dreams," she yawns, "because you don't . . ." Before she can finish the sentence, she descends back into sleep.
I get up and walk to the study. I have been advised to take a set of steps as a remedy. I have "identity lapses," as the doctor is pleased to call them. I have not found this clinical phrase in any book. I think he made it up. Whatever they are called, these lapses lead to physical side effects: my heart is still thumping, and I can hardly sit or lie still.
I write my name, Charles Baxter, my address, the county, and the state in which I live. I concoct a word that doesn't exist in our language but still might have a meaning or should have one: glimmerless. I am glimmerless. I write down the word next to my name.
On the first floor near the foot of the stairs, we have placed on the wall an antique mirror so old that it can't reflect anything anymore. Its surface, worn down to nubbled grainy gray stubs, has lost one of its dimensions. Like me, it's glimmerless. You can't see into it now, just past it. Depth has been replaced by texture. This mirror gives back nothing and makes no productive claim upon anyone. The mirror has been so completely worn away that you have to learn to live with what it refuses to do. That's its beauty.
I have put on jeans, a shirt, shoes. I will take a walk. I glide past the nonmirroring mirror, unseen, thinking myself a vampire who soaks up essences other than blood. I go outside to Woodland Drive and saunter to the end of the block onto a large vacant lot. Here I am, a mere neighbor, somnambulating, harmless, no longer a menace to myself or to anyone else, and, stage by stage, feeling calmer now that I am outside.
As all the neighbors know, no house will ever be built on the ground where I am standing because of subsurface problems with water drainage. In the flatlands of Michigan the water stays put. The storm sewers have proven to be inadequate, with the result that this property, at the base of the hill on which our street was laid, always floods following thunderstorms and stays wet for weeks. The neighborhood kids love it. After rains they shriek their way to the puddles.
Above me in the clear night sky, the moon, Earth's mad companion, is belting out show tunes. A Rodgers and Hart medley, this is, including "Where or When." The moon has a good baritone voice. No: someone from down the block has an audio system on. Apparently I am still quite sleepy and disoriented. The moon, it seems, is not singing after all.
I turn away from the vacant lot and head east along its edge, taking the sidewalk that leads to the path into what is called Pioneer Woods. These woods border the houses on my street. I know the path by heart. I have taken walks on this path almost every day for the last twenty years. Our dog, Tasha, walks through here as mechanically as I do except when she sees a squirrel. In the moonlight the path that I am following has the appearance of the tunnel that Beauty walks through to get to the Beast, and though I cannot see what lies at the other end of the tunnel, I do not need to see it. I could walk it blind.
On the path now, urged leftward toward a stand of maples, I hear the sound of droplets falling through the leaves. It can't be raining. There are still stars visible intermittently overhead. No: here are the gypsy moths, still in their caterpillar form, chewing at the maple and serviceberry leaves, devouring our neighborhood forest leaf by leaf. Night gives them no rest. The woods have been infested with them, and during the day the sun shines through these trees as if spring were here, bare stunned nubs of gnawed and nibbled leaves casting almost no shade on the ground, where the altered soil chemistry, thanks to the caterpillars' leavings, has killed most of the seedlings, leaving only disagreeably enlarged thorny and deep-rooted thistles, horror-movie phantasm vegetation with deep root systems. The trees are coated, studded, with caterpillars, their bare trunks hairy and squirming. I can barely see them but can hear their every scrape and crawl.
The city has sprayed this forest with Bacillus thuringiensis, two words I love to say to myself, and the bacillus has killed some of these pests; their bodies lie on the path, where my seemingly adhesive shoes pick them up. I can feel them under my soles in the dark as I walk, squirming semiliquid life. Squish, squoosh. And in my night confusion it is as if I can hear the leaves being gnawed, the forest being eaten alive, shred by shred. I cannot bear it. They are not mild, these moths. Their appetites are blindingly voracious, obsessive. An acquaintance has told me that the Navahos refer to someone with an emotional illness as "moth crazy."
On the other side of the woods I come out onto the edge of a street, Stadium Boulevard, and walk down a slope toward the corner, where a stoplight is blinking red in two directions. I turn east and head toward the University of Michigan football stadium, the largest college football stadium in the country. The greater part of it was excavated below ground; only a small part of its steel and concrete structure is visible from here, the corner of Stadium and Main, just east of Pioneer High School. Cars pass occasionally on the street, their drivers hunched over, occasionally glancing at me in a fearful or predatory manner. Two teenagers out here are skateboarding in the dark, clattering over the pavement, doing their risky and amazing ankle-busting curb jumping. They grunt and holler. Both white, they have fashioned Rasta-wear for themselves, dreads and oversized unbuttoned vests over bare skin. I check my watch. It is 1:30. I stop to make sure that no patrol cars are passing and then make my way through the turnstiles. The university has planned to build an enormous iron fence around this place, but it's not here yet. I am trespassing now and subject to arrest. After entering the tunneled walkway of Gate 19, I find myself at the south end zone, in the kingdom of football.
Inside the stadium, I feel the hushed moonlight on my back and sit down on a metal bench. The August meteor shower now seems to be part of this show. I am two thirds of the way up. These seats are too high for visibility and too coldly metallic for comfort, but the place is so massive that it makes most individual judgments irrelevant. Like any coliseum, it defeats privacy and solitude through sheer size. Carved out of the earth, sized for hordes and giants, bloody injuries and shouting, and so massive that no glance can take it all in, the stadium can be considered the staging ground for epic events, and not just football: in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced his Great Society program here.
On every home-game Saturday in the fall, blimps and biplanes pulling advertising banners putter in semicircles overhead. Starting about three hours before kickoff, our street begins to be clogged with parked cars and RVs driven by midwesterners in various states of happy pre-inebriation, and when I rake the leaves in my back yard I hear the tidal clamor of the crowd in the distance, half a mile away. The crowd at the game is loudly traditional and antiphonal: one side of the stadium roars GO and the other side roars BLUE. The sounds rise to the sky, also blue, but nonpartisan.
The moonlight reflects off the rows of stands. I look down at the field, now, at 1:45 in the morning. A midsummer night's dream is being enacted down there.
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires and those of a solitary naked couple, barely visible down there right now on the fifty-yard line, making love, on this midsummer night.
They are making soft distant audibles.
Back out on the sidewalk, I turn west and walk toward Allmendinger Park. I see the park's basketball hoops and tennis courts and monkey bars illuminated dimly by the streetlight. Near the merry-go-round, the city planners have bolted several benches into the ground for sedentary parents watching their children. I used to watch my son from that very spot. As I stroll by on the sidewalk, I think I see someone, some shadowy figure in a jacket, emerging as if out of a fog or mist, sitting on a bench accompanied by a dog, but certainly not watching any children, this man, not at this time of night, and as I draw closer, he looks up, and so does the dog, a somewhat nondescript collie-Labrador-shepherd mix. I know this dog. I also know the man sitting next to him. I have known him for years. His arms are flung out on both sides of the bench, and his legs are crossed, and in addition to the jacket (a dark blue Chicago Bulls windbreaker), he's wearing a baseball hat, as if he were not quite adult, as if he had not quite given up the dreams of youth and athletic grace and skill. His name is Bradley W. Smith.
His chinos are one size too large for him -- they bag around his hips and his knees -- and he's wearing a shirt with a curious design that I cannot quite make out, an interlocking M. C. Escher giraffe pattern, giraffes linked to giraffes, but it can't be that, it can't be what I think it is. In the dark my friend looks like an exceptionally handsome toad. The dog snaps at a moth, then puts his head on his owner's leg. I might be hallucinating the giraffes on the man's shirt, or I might simply be mistaken. He glances at me in the dark as I sit down next to him on the bench.
"Hey," he says, "Charlie. What the hell are you doing out here? What's up?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.