Charles Baxter's short stories easily satisfy the genre's one nonnegotiable requirement: The central characters, through an encounter or an epiphany, must undergo some kind of transformation. What's most pleasurable, however, about the work-in-miniature by this celebrated American novelist…isn't the way it fulfills its basic generic obligations. It's the way that Baxter lovingly teases anguish, humor and heart-rending beauty out of clear, unaffected sentences describing the gray-clouded interior worlds inhabited by his cast of (largely) Midwestern melancholics.
The Washington Post
Baxter's skill with short fiction is confirmed in this stellar collection of 23 stories, seven of which are new. The title story is deservedly a classic, and other favorites, such as "Fenstad's Mother," have gathered resonance as well, and the new stories show Baxter working a quirky beat. In each, the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal. In "Poor Devil," the "devils" are a self-destructive couple headed for a divorce, while, in "Ghosts," a stranger enters a young woman's house and tells her they are soul mates. She accuses him of being a devil, but his intentions are much less sinister than she imagines. "Nightfall had always brought his devils out," the narrator says in "The Old Murderer," a touching story about an alcoholic and an ex-con, each trying to get through the day. In "Royal Blue," arguably the best of the new stories, an undertow of mystery shadows a handsome young art dealer who understands that 9/11 has affected a fundamental change in his life. In Baxter's comic-melancholic world, people may be incapable of averting sadness or violence, but they survive. (Jan.)
“With formidable skill and only a few brushstrokes of description, Baxter deftly draws us into his characters’ predicaments. . . . One of our best storytellers.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] career-encompassing collection.... Baxter’s legacy to fiction is clear: For more than twenty-five years he’s insisted that we’re kidding ourselves a little whenever we call ourselves ‘normal.’” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Remarkable. The early stories are terrific, and the new stories are terrific. Often, in this type of retrospective, it is obvious how much a writer has matured and developed. Rarely, but as demonstrated in this collection, we’re struck by the realization that the writer has always been this good.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“This is Baxter at his best: a subtle and astute observer of the human.” —The New York Review of Books
“Baxter lovingly teases anguish, humor, and heart-rending beauty out of clear, unaffected sentences.” —The Washington Post
“A warmly disposed yet unsentimental chronicler of American lives…. Some [stories are] poignant and disturbing, and all of them highly readable.” —The New York Times Book Review
“This is a marvelous book.” —Kansas City Star
“Baxter shines [a] bright light on his characters, so bright that the landscape around them, in almost every story, shimmers like a mirage in extreme heat.” —Los Angeles Times
“Baxter is a genius. . . . [Gryphon] keeps us mesmerized to the end. Baxter brings to his masterful stories a quirky slant born of the straight-faced humor of the Midwest.” —Jane Ciabattari, Books We Like, NPR
“Baxter’s writing is spare, but, like a flash of cat eyes in the night, well-crafted images and wit flit onto the pages.” —Providence Journal
“Baxter is always engaged in a kind of chemistry experiment, closely monitoring what will ensue when two or more disparate elements are—often impulsively—combined. The results, always complex, can be surprising: and, like Miss Ferenczi in ‘Gryphon,’ they can bring us wonders we had not known we might see.” —The New York Review of Books
“Baxter is a writer who plainly enjoys writing, who revels in it, which is rarer than you might think—not the enjoyment, necessarily, but the palpability of the pleasure. . . . Keen and playful.” —The Boston Globe
“What a treasure this volume is! . . . Dazzles us with the full brilliance of this writer’s vision.” —Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe
“Elegant. . . . Baxter is a melancholy expert craftsman.” —The New Yorker
“[Baxter] truly excels at the short form. He observes Chekhov’s admonition not to bore people by telling them everything. And yet his delicately carved slices of life contain a surprising amount of detail and depth.” —The Miami Herald
“There is both humor and truth in both the miniscule and the grand in Baxter’s writing, which makes this book as memorable as his work always is.” —Time Out Chicago
“Baxter’s constructs are of the muscular, straight-no-chaser variety that you might expect from Hemingway. . . . Never strikes a false note.” —Time Out New York
“Further cements [Baxter’s] reputation as a master chronicler of the Midwest.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“A feast of affecting encounters.” —Parade Magazine
“Like those of other masters of the form, Baxter’s short stories don’t seem abbreviated at all; he manages to suggest the complexity of an entire life within a few pages. . . . Gryphon is a fine introduction for Baxter novices and an exciting addition for connoisseurs.” —The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
“Baxter’s pilgrim’s journeys and tragicomic tales plumb the depths of psychology and faith. . . . Baxter exemplifies how entertainment and enlightenment come together in good fiction.” —Asheville Citizen-Times
“Baxter is a subtle and sophisticated writer, and each of these stories merits multiple readings. . . . For those unfamiliar with this great writer, I can’t think of a better introduction than this book.” —Devon Shepherd, MostlyFiction.com
“Baxter is our modern short story master because he knows how to dig at a particularly Midwestern brand of human frailty. . . . His stories quietly enter the reader’s subconscious and reverberate.” —Austin American-Statesman
This collected work reminds us that Baxter shines in the short story form. Whereas his novels (e.g., The Feast of Love) are cinematic in tone, his stories read like unfinished journal entries from a secret diary. By allowing the reader only a glimpse into the lives of each character, Baxter weaves together seemingly mundane activities into complex examples of love, fear, and anxiety. This collection is officially touted as a best of, with a few new additions, but, thematically, each of the 23 stories is a piece of a larger puzzle that cannot be put together. Whether his characters are standing on their head to relieve stress, writing fake horoscopes to instill confidence in their children, or teaching children to tell their fortune with a tarot deck, each action serves as a lens to focus Baxter's illumination of the mystery of life. VERDICT Readers who enjoy the simple prose of John Irving and the imagination of Michael Chabon will be delighted by this collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
This is the fifth story collection from novelist Baxter (The Soul Thief, 2008, etc.); its 23 stories (seven of them new) range from mediocre to memorable to mesmerizing.
How well do you know your other half? The question haunts some of the relationship stories. As Dennis and Emily are splitting up after eight years, they learn new things about each other ("Poor Devil"). Janet (in "Flood Show") has a lesson for husband Conor, still obsessed with his first wife. Our ultimate unknowability is driven home most strongly in "Kiss Away." In this radiant love story, Jodie and Walton are head over heels. Then Jodie meets his ex, who tells her Walton is abusive. Is she lying? Is Jodie ready to make that leap of faith into marriage? With its cliffhanger ending, this is one for the anthologies. Sometimes it's parents and children who don't know each other. Jaynee, a troubled teenager, is threatening to shoot a lion in the Detroit zoo ("Westland"). Her propensity for violence shocks Earl, her harried parent, but not as much as her diary revelations.Borderline crazies figure prominently: A guilty liberal tries to help three of them, all homeless ("Shelter"). Melissa tells an intruder he's a devil, though a really minor one, before sleeping with him ("Ghosts"). That's pure Baxter—he's forthright but unpredictable, a sweet combination. "Royal Blue" is not a 9/11 story, as first appears: It's the coming-of-age of a pretty boy after his girlfriend's miscarriage. The encounter of a desperate recovering alcoholic and a paroled murderer, next-door neighbors, should read grim, but "The Old Murderer" is so fast-paced it's oddly buoyant.
The uncanny power of Baxter's work derives from his knowledge of our secret selves as well as our surface ones.