Charles Baxter wrote four bad novels before he realized his true talent was creating short stories. He’s been doing it for 40 years now to major acclaim for his taut, lyrical prose and ability to plumb the depths of human frailties.
“Short stories are like poetry in the necessity of getting right to the point,” he says. “There’s a feeling of a precious glimpse instead of a long stare. Stories really accommodate characters who are impulsive. You can’t get much of their history into a story, and they’re not always going to make decisions the way characters in a novel do. I like that.”
Baxter’s sixth story collection, There’s Something I Want You to Do, is divided into five stories of virtues and five of vices with his hometown Minneapolis as the backdrop. The format was inspired by viewing Polish director Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s The Decalogue, a series of short films each based on one of the 10 Commandments.
The title There’s Something I Want You to Do adds another layer to the collection as the phrase is repeated throughout the book as requests made to characters that impel them to act. It’s something Baxter, both as a writer and a writing teacher, has come only lately to understand about story creation.
He has long talked to his college students of the need to establish a character’s desires and fears. But his students wrote stories that tended to avoid a larger, public world. The idea of the “request moment” was born from reading an interview with Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne.
The notion later became the subject of a talk Baxter gave at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where he said, “Literature doesn’t always work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t always work that way. Much of the time in our lives, we aren’t doing what we want to do; we’re performing actions that other people want us to do. We are acting on the basis of a transferred desire, a desire that has been unhoused from its owner and sutured on to us. We lose ownership over our desires; someone or something else may be the absentee landlord of our actions.”
“I’ve only lately started thinking of request moments in part because I grew up in a household with a very bossy mother,” Baxter says. “People who remember her laugh when they see the book title. They remember how many times she said, ‘There’s something I want you to do.’ ”
In Baxter’s story “Loyalty,” Wes has rebuilt his life with a new marriage after his first wife abandons him and their young son. When his new wife returns in a semi-crazed state, Wes feels the obligation to help her and in the process must forgive and construct a new sort of family.
“There’s a sense that people can recover from some of the worst things that happen to them,” Baxter says. It’s a hopeful theme that underlies many of Baxter’s stories.
In his book, the same characters weave in and out of stories: Overweight pediatrician Elijah meets his wife in one tale and confronts the holy roller parents of his teenage son’s girlfriend post-abortion in another. Architect Benny is mugged in one story. In another he falls in love while stopping a woman from leaping to her death and marries her with the provision they never kiss.
Baxter’s own story began when he was 18 months old and his father died. His mother remarried and his stepfather moved the family to an isolated area with few neighbors. But his stepfather had a large library of books that Baxter grew up around.
“The sense of isolation was a big deal for me,” he says. “I think it was how I started reading and loving movies.”
Baxter gives a nod to the writer Frank O’Connor, too, who said the short story is a good form to take on loneliness. “I think he’s onto something there, too,” Baxter says. “The loneliness in a lot of the stories is remedied by a weird almost magical connection with somebody or some thing.”
Take the ghost of director Alfred Hitchcock, who appears in the story “Sloth” and describes watching movies as when you “swallow a pill containing dreams.”
Baxter, now 67, saw the Hitchcock film Psycho when he was 13. “In some ways I never got over it,” Baxter says. “I got obsessed with his movies in a way only an adolescent can.”
From Hitchcock he learned writing techniques that linger, like having the true drama lurking while characters prattle on politely about something entirely unrelated. And, of course, there’s the power of suspense when the reader knows something a character doesn’t.
In the story “Chastity,” Baxter writes, “Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.”
He predicts it will be the most quoted passage from the book and reflects a societal need to hide. “I just think it’s protecting people from their most valuable insights and feelings,” Baxter says. “It is all just flippant, dismissive, jokey, I’m here but I’m not really part of this scene. It’s always combined with insecurity. I’m fascinated by it. Maybe it stops when people start having babies.”
Baxter is often referred to both as a writer’s writer (“I think that means it would be nice if I had more sales,” Baxter jokes) and a Midwestern writer. In the story “Gluttony,” he writes, “Noisy hospitality of this kind could be cold and heartless. The whole point was to avoid any trace of intimacy. In the Midwest, you just had to get used to it.”
Baxter sees it as a characteristic of communities that are cut off from the country’s larger commerce. “A lot of people from other parts of the country notice it—an initial friendliness that is mostly a surface,” he says. “You try to get past it to real intimacy. Good luck.”
While an expert at revealing human nature and its myriad foibles, Baxter has less patience with analytical readers—including students who often ask him about the “lesson” behind frequently anthologized story “Gryphon.”
“I just want to take people away for a while,” he says. “To take them away to story land. I want them to forget they are sitting there in the chair. Instead, some people (in a story) are doing something interesting and there’s something beautiful about it.”
Joe M. O’Connell, the author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.