A world of flat and aimless people

Book Review: "Gryphon: New and Selected Stories," by Charles Baxter. Pantheon, $27.95.

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Charles Baxter, who teaches college students how to write fiction when he isn't doing it himself, specializes in white middle-class folk who encounter odd bumps and unpleasant dislocations in their Thoreau-like lives of quiet desperation.

He's published five novels, 2008's "The Soul Thief" the latest, and four story collections. His new book gathers 23 previously published stories. Despite the subtitle, none of them are new; seven just weren't included in books, but appeared in magazines. Go figure.

Perhaps the recurring theme in his stories can be summed up by the character of Frederick, a 12-year-old in the story, "Mr Scary."

"You mean I'm supposed to be happy." He inflected the word with scorn. "Happiness sucks."

Or at least, is overrated.

The usual Baxter character, though, is an ineffectual, aimless adult male in the Midwest, like social worker Warren Banks in "Westland." In Baxter world, he's becoming unmoored from his family life, visiting the zoo on Saturdays when he's supposed to be grocery shopping.

There he meets another common Baxterite, the rebellious teenage girl, Jaynee, who's been sleeping at the zoo after a little sex with a boy near the polar bears. She's carrying her dad's pistol for protection.

Warren ends up with the gun, which gives him renewed confidence after he fires a few rounds in the direction of a nuclear power plant.

In Mr. Baxter's world, it's the little things that count.

This collection is a retrospective of sorts charting the writer's progress as he moved from writing stories inspired by Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie to an Elmore Leonard-like humor and dialogue in the later works.

Most of them, however, are consistently flat and affectless, with a deadpan humor, a style that Mr. Baxter seems to want to call his own.

I wish I could write the kind of pat conclusion that he often uses to wrap up his stories to sum up this collection, but like a Baxter character, I'm too indifferent to have an opinion one way or the other to write one


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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