Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Believers: A Novella and Stories by Charles Baxter

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

This collection of seven stories and one novella landed in my hands as a gift, knowing that I have an interest in authors residing in my geographical area (lower Michigan)... but after reading the collection, I plan to read more Baxter, regardless of where he lives, regardless whether the books arrive in my hands as gifts or as my own purchases. I will plunk down my hard-earned dollars for a bit more Baxter, because he knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to write one.

No, that is not one and the same thing. I have found that some authors can weave a yarn very well, peaking suspense, captivating intrigue, taking the reader from beginning to middle to climactic conclusion, but not necessarily with words that are breathtakingly new. These are the storytellers. Others, I find, may not be the best at keeping the varied and many strings of a storyline teasingly tangled yet taut, but they are wonderful writers. They are word artists. They have a talent for choosing fresh phrases that amaze, painting colorful images, bringing about those special a-ha moments for the reader by framing something in words never quite framed that way before. I love that. Maybe even more than a taut storyline.

But oh, the pleasure when finding a word-artist who can also tell a good story! Baxter can do this. Granted, not always in equal measure. "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor" leaves me unconvinced, even wincing a bit. In theory, I believe it is possible for a male writer to write as if with the voice of a woman, for a female writer to write as if with the voice of a man - and convincingly so. But it's hard, it is tricky. For a male writer to write as if a pregnant woman.... well, let's just say, it didn't break my water. The story lost me, a female reader, in its first pages of Patsy feeling as if she were "reeking with reproduction." Um, no. "Cures For Love" perhaps has a similar problem, again with a female as main character, suffering the pangs of a broken relationship by wearing her ex's cap backwards as she bathes, as she cooks. Instead of feeling her anguish in these images, I end up grinning. The image was amusing more than painful. I did not feel her pain. This woman just doesn't hurt like a woman to me. I wish, instead, Baxter had enlightened me on the male perspective of this break-up. Surely men feel pain worthy of a storyline, too, and I suspect it would have been more authentic.

In this very same story, however, I can point to what makes me now officially a Baxter fan:

"She was not a romantic and did not like the word romance. They hadn't had a romance, the two of them. Nothing soft or tender, like that. They had just, well, driven into each other like reckless drivers at an intersection, neither one wanting to yield the right-of-way."

Now, that I like! Baxter writes often (too often?) about the ups and downs, ins and outs, of love in its many forms, always a difficult topic to address in fresh words, and this is just one of many examples of how well he accomplishes just that. Love can indeed be at times like a head-on collision, all parties injured and whiplashed, tires left spinning, engines smoking. Hurrah! I have my a-ha moment.

Indeed, I have moments that Baxter reminds me of other authors whose work in the short story genre I admire very much: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike. He can evoke a certain mystery, even eeriness, tinge of evil intention, as Oates does. He can amuse with human antics as Updike does. In this collection, he does it best in the novella, "Believers."

"We cannot imagine the soul without its clothing of flesh," he writes in his novella. Simple words, written with artistry.

By the time I had finished reading this introduction to Baxter, I had already visited the bookstore to purchase his "Feast of Love." I'll be back for more.

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