'Gryphon': Beautiful Stories For A Snowy Afternoon

gryphonecover
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories
By Charles Baxter
Hardcover, 414 pages
Pantheon Books
List Price: $27.95
Read An Excerpt

Charles Baxter is a genius of the quotidian. From his earliest stories on, he has shown a gift for illuminating the surreal just below the surface of daily life. In five novels — from First Light (1987) to The Soul Thief (2008) — and four story collections, he has created a fictional universe both familiar and fabulous.

Most of the stories in Gryphon, his latest collection — which includes seven new pieces and 16 others from past volumes — are set in Minneapolis, Baxter's hometown; Detroit, where he taught at Wayne State for many years; and in a mythical rural community he calls Five Oaks, Mich. In all of these settings, Baxter's imagination is spacious, his prose style straightforward, and his characters truly eccentric. Many of his stories revolve around what happens when the unexpected intrudes upon routine.

In "Horace and Margaret's Fifty-Second" (from 1984's Harmony of the World), a woman who has put her husband into a home (his faculties are gone) wakes on the morning of their 52nd anniversary to "an unfamiliar sun shining through a window she hadn't remembered was there." Baxter follows her compassionately on her own confused pathway toward forgetting.

In "Gryphon," the much anthologized title story first published in 1984, a palpably normal fourth-grader describes how a substitute teacher introduces him to the wonders of the imagination. Miss Ferenczi, the sub, tells the class about sea creatures thin as pancakes that explode when exposed to air; trees that eat meat; and the gryphon, an animal with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion she claims to have seen in Egypt. The casting out of the unconventional Miss Ferenczi is both precipitous and inevitable.

Baxter's newer stories are immersed in contemporary troubles yet ever more unmoored from physical reality.

Charles Baxter is the author of several novels, including The Feast of Love. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and  in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Charles Baxter is the author of several novels, including The Feast of Love. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Keri Pickett hide caption

itoggle caption Keri Pickett

"Royal Blue" tells of a handsome young New York art dealer whose worldview shifts after Sept. 11 and a visit to Granny Westerby, an Alaskan primitive artist whose specialty is "visionary Eros." ("I paint with sky," she explains; a typical piece is a wine bottle on which she has lettered in blue, "Fear and love his loins"). The mysteries of Granny's work weave together with his life back in New York.

"The Winner" follows a down-and-out journalist named Krumholz to the woods north of Lake Superior to interview a reclusive multimillionaire for a cover story in Success magazine. The farther afield he gets, the more Krumholz loses his grip. As usual, Baxter keeps us mesmerized to the end. Baxter brings to his masterful stories a quirky slant born of the straight-faced humor of the Midwest. His worldview encompasses the abrasiveness between the outsider and the native-born, the accepting shrug when life dishes out more than most can bear, and the fragile boundaries of neighborly life. His stories are closely observed and, in this generous selection, almost universally intriguing. Gryphon has my vote for the book I'd most want to have along for a snowbound weekend this winter.

Excerpt: Gryphon

gryphonecover
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories
By Charles Baxter
Hardcover, 414 pages
Pantheon Books
List Price: $27.95

The Next Building I Plan to Bomb

In the parking lot next to the bank, Harry Edmonds saw a piece of gray scrap paper the size of a greeting card. It had blown up next to his leg and attached itself to him there. Across the top margin was some scrabby writing in purple ink. He picked it up and examined it. On the upper left-hand corner someone had scrawled the phrase THE NEXT BUILDING I PLAN TO BOMB. Harry unfolded the paper and saw an inked drawing of what appeared to be a sizable train station or some other public structure, perhaps an airport terminal. In the drawing were arched windows and front pillars but very little other supporting detail. The building looked solid, monumental, and difficult to destroy.

He glanced around the parking lot. There he was in Five Oaks, Michigan, where there were no such buildings. In the light wind other pieces of paper floated by in an agitated manner. One yellow flyer was stuck to a fire hydrant. On the street was the daily crowd of bankers, lawyers, shoppers, and students. As usual, no one was watching him or paying much attention to him. He put the piece of paper into his coat pocket.

All afternoon, while he sat at his desk, his hand traveled down to his pocket to touch the drawing. Late in the day, half as a joke, he showed the paper to the office receptionist.

"You've got to take it to the police," she told him. "This is dangerous. This is the work of a maniac. That's LaGuardia there, the airport? In the picture? I was there last month. I'm sure it's LaGuardia, Mr. Edmonds. No kidding. Definitely LaGuardia."

So at the end of the day, before going home, he drove to the main police station on the first floor of City Hall. Driving into the sun, he felt his eyes squinting against the burrowing glare. He had stepped inside the front door when the waxy bureaucratic smell of the building hit him and gave him an immediate headache. A cop in uniform, wearing an impa­tient expression, sat behind a desk, shuffling through some papers, and at that moment it occurred to Harry Edmonds that if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone. He turned on his heel and went home.

***
At dinner, he said to his girlfriend, "Look what I found in a parking lot today." He handed her the drawing.

Lucia examined the soiled paper, her thumb and finger at its corner, and said, " 'The next building I plan to bomb.' " Her tone was light and urbane. She sold computer software and was sensitive to gestures. Then she said, "That's Union Station, in Chicago." She smiled. "Well, Harry, what are you going to do with this? Some nutcase did this, right?"

"Actually, I got as far as the foyer in the police station this afternoon," he said. "Then I turned around. I couldn't show it to them. I thought they'd suspect me or something."

"Oh, that's so melodramatic," she said. "You've never committed a crime in your life. You're a banker, for Chrissake. You're in the trust department. You're harmless."

Harry sat back in his chair and looked at her. "I'm not that harmless."

"Yes, you are." She laughed. "You're quite harmless."

"Lucia," he said, "I wish you wouldn't use that word."

" 'Harmless'? It's a compliment."

"Not in this country, it isn't," he said.

On the table were the blue plates and matching napkins and the yel­low candles that Lucia brought out whenever she was proud of what she or Harry had cooked. Today it was Burmese chicken curry. "Well, if you're worried, take it to the cops," Lucia told him. "That's what the cops are there for. Honey," she said, "no one will suspect you of any­thing. You're handsome and stable and you're my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today? Put that awful creepy paper back into your pocket. How do you like the curry?"

"It's delicious," he said.

***
After Harry had gotten up his nerve sufficiently to enter the police sta­tion again, he walked in a determined manner toward the front desk. After looking carefully at the drawing and the inked phrase, and writing down Harry Edmonds's name and address, the officer, whose badge identified him as Sergeant Bursk, asked, "Mr. Edmonds, you got any kids?"

"Kids? No, I don't have kids. Why?"

"Kids did this," Sergeant Bursk told him, waving the paper in front of him as if he were drying it off. "My kids could've done this. Kids do this. Boys do this. They draw torture chambers and they make threats and what-have-you. That's what they do. It's the youth. But they're kids. They don't mean it."

"How do you know?"

"Because I have three of them," Sergeant Bursk said. "I'm not saying that you should have kids, I'm just saying that I have them. I'll keep this drawing, though, if you don't mind."

"Actually," Harry said, "I'd like it back."

"Okay," Sergeant Bursk said, handing it to him, "but if we hear of any major bombings, and, you know, large-scale serious death, maybe we'll give you a call."

"Yeah," Harry said. He had been expecting this. "By the way," he asked, "does this look like any place in particular to you?"

The cop examined the picture. "Sure," he said. "That's Grand Cen­tral. In New York, on Forty-second Street, I think. I was there once. You can tell by the clock. See this clock here?" He pointed at a vague circle. "That's Grand Central, and this is the big clock that they've got there on the front."

Excerpted from Gryphon by Charles Baxter Copyright 2011 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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