Author: Charles Baxter
Publisher: Pantheon Books
ISBN: 978-0-307-37921-4

Click Here To Purchase Gryphon: New and Selected Stories

In “Kiss Away”, one of the stories in this new collection by Charles Baxter, a character rues the circumstances in which three wishes granted to her have been fulfilled, wishing she were armed against “ the infidelities of the future.”  These infidelities  and those uncertain futures are a recurring theme in the elegant  stories that comprise ‘Gryphon’,  where the unexpected frequently lurks around the corner in its characters’ lives. 

‘The Would Be Father’ sets the tone of ‘Gryphon’ perfectly, with its tale of an adoptive father who uses astrology to boost his son’s confidence, only to be caught unawares  by an eccentric neighbour . So also, ‘Kiss Away’ where a spontaneous act of kindness  brings both magic and malice into Jodie’s life. Magic lurks in the title story too, as a young boy finds his imagination awakened by the substitute teacher Ms. Ferenczi, a woman as exotic and unusual as her name, only to wither when she is dismissed over an indiscretion in class.

‘Gryphon’ possesses  all the ingredients  that have made Baxter’s earlier books so remarkable –  spare prose, finely etched  characters with rich inner voices teetering on the cusp of change ( “dealing with their unique problems”,
as the eponymous character in ‘Fenstad’s Mother’ would say )  and  an eye for the unusual lurking  in the most commonplace of events and objects.

Baxter skilfully captures characters caught in the prism of their inner turmoil, trying to make sense of the world around them. He walks us right into his characters’ minds, offers us front row seats to their bewildered musings, their conflicts and struggles. And each story surprises ,delights and, occasionally, leaves  one in much the same confusion as its protagonists. Anders in ‘The Disappeared’, fresh off the boat from Sweden, stumbles through an American vacation, only to be left  even more befuddled by a mysterious woman who love, then leaves him.  In ‘Snow’, a boy tries to impress a girl who feels “ something in the Lost and Found” , even as she yearns to catch his attention. Estelle, in ‘Mr. Scary’, lives a life divided into Parts , Part Two brimming with the contentment, stability and marital bliss she had craved in Part One.  (“.. there would never be a Part Three. Of that she was sure.”) And yet, a shadow of that old life persists, as she raises the son of her wayward daughter , a boy  with a disturbing taste for the morbid. In ‘Westland’ a man who feels he will ‘..implode on impact’ finds his life improved by the mere presence of a gun he is in reluctant possession of, and interaction with its troubled owner. And in ‘Surprised by Joy’, perhaps the most tragic of these stories, a man struggling to deal with the death of a young child feels betrayed when his wife breaks free of the grief that has been their sole bond.

Baxter is  a  master of the literary freeze frame,  ending  each story in a moment of equipoise ,  ripe with possibility, like the open doors in the cover image. Darkness looms in the wings of some stories, but never quite engulfs their protagonists; characters swerve toward, but never quite meet, disaster. Relationships falter, then find their balance , if only in the lull before the next upheaval.  In some stories this equipoise is mellow, like for  the repentant father in ‘The Old Murderer’ , or the narrator of ‘The Cousins’, free at last of the shadow of a self destructive cousin.  In others, it resonates with tension,  as with  Krumholtz in ‘The Winner’ who endures ridicule  and embarrassment at the hands of  the family he is sent to profile , before exacting a sweet revenge on his tormentors. And in the lovely ‘The Cures For Love’, Ovid himself chides, soothes and coaxes a woman out of heartbreak , until she awakens to a  world where all it takes is a patch of reflected light for her to feel happiness again.

A treat for all devotees of the short story.

Click Here To Purchase Gryphon: New and Selected Stories