Surprised by Life

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter

Reading Gryphon, Charles Baxter’s latest collection of short stories, was an unexpectedly gratifying experience. As I closed the back cover after finishing the final story it occurred to me that I’ve actually read Baxter before. Baxter’s first novel First Light was assigned reading in my college American Postmodern Literature class, and for very good reason. First Light, the emotional story of siblings Hugh and Dorsey Welch, translates the human experience in a poignant and powerful way. Fortunately, the stories of Gryphon achieve exactly the same effect.

The theme that drives the majority of the stories in this collection is the tenuous nature of one’s personal stability. Baxter’s characters are often depicted as ordinary people living balanced, if not bland, lives until an unexpected occurrence shatters their equilibrium. In “Gryphon”, the collection’s acclaimed title story, a fourth grader’s uncomplicated understanding of the world is dismantled when substitute teacher Ms. Ferenczi introduces the class to a world view in which Tarot cards can predict the future and six times eleven can sometimes equal sixty-eight.

Later in the collection, in “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb”, a man struggling to ward off manic-depressive extremes simply picks up a piece of litter on his lunch break and his world veers off course. The piece of litter is a childish drawing of a prominent, but unidentifiable, building with the statement “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” caustically written above it. The responsibility to prevent this threatened attack consumes the man and he finds himself unable to cope with the pressure.

Finally, all it takes in the “The Winner”, Gryphon’s powerful closer, is a little distance from home to threaten the composure of freelance writer Jerry Krumholtz. In the backwoods of northern Minnesota, Krumholtz is traveling to the lavish estate of entrepreneur James Mallard in order to interview him as Success magazine’s latest cover man. However, as Krumholtz travels further from home, both physically and in terms of surrounding lifestyle, his wellbeing gradually deteriorates.

One of the many pleasant surprises in Gryphon is its perfectly illustrated Midwestern setting. As a Michigan native, I appreciated the honest depiction of the state as generally bland, but capable of grandeur. Paralleling the unequivocal setting is the style of writing. Baxter writes in a straightforward, declarative manner, but refuses to spare the reader the details of the emotions his characters experience. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Surprised by Joy”, expresses the unbearable pain of a couple in the wake of their three-year-old child’s accidental death. Without coming off as melodramatic, Baxter manages to translate the bereaved parents’ agony into words.

Due to a slew of positive reviews, I can’t say that I am surprised to have enjoyed Gryphon. I can, however, say that I am surprised to have connected with it as much as I did. Baxter’s talent lies in his ability to interpret the scale of human emotion and for that, I am eager to read him again soon.

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One response to “Surprised by Life

  1. Nice review! I agree that the last story is a powerful one. He did capture something true about human nature and emotions in each story, I think.

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