This is the fifth story collection from novelist Baxter (The Soul Thief, 2008, etc.); its 23 stories (seven of them new) range from mediocre to memorable to mesmerizing.
How well do you know your other half? The question haunts some of the relationship stories. As Dennis and Emily are splitting up after eight years, they learn new things about each other ("Poor Devil"). Janet (in "Flood Show") has a lesson for husband Conor, still obsessed with his first wife. Our ultimate unknowability is driven home most strongly in "Kiss Away.” In this radiant love story, Jodie and Walton are head over heels. Then Jodie meets his ex, who tells her Walton is abusive. Is she lying? Is Jodie ready to make that leap of faith into marriage? With its cliffhanger ending, this is one for the anthologies. Sometimes it’s parents and children who don’t know each other. Jaynee, a troubled teenager, is threatening to shoot a lion in the Detroit zoo ("Westland"). Her propensity for violence shocks Earl, her harried parent, but not as much as her diary revelations. Borderline crazies figure prominently: A guilty liberal tries to help three of them, all homeless ("Shelter"). Melissa tells an intruder he’s a devil, though a really minor one, before sleeping with him ("Ghosts"). That’s pure Baxter—he’s forthright but unpredictable, a sweet combination. "Royal Blue" is not a 9/11 story, as first appears: It’s the coming-of-age of a pretty boy after his girlfriend’s miscarriage. The encounter of a desperate recovering alcoholic and a paroled murderer, next-door neighbors, should read grim, but "The Old Murderer" is so fast-paced it’s oddly buoyant.
The uncanny power of Baxter’s work derives from his knowledge of our secret selves as well as our surface ones.