BASS 2014: Charles Baxter, “Charity” from McSweeney’s #43


“I’m Quinn.” He held out his hand. Black Bird did not take it. “My friend Morrow told me about you.”
“Ah huh,” Black Bird said. He glanced up with an impatient expression before returning to his book. Quinn examined the text. Black Bird was reading Othello, the third act.
“Morrow said I should come see you. There’s something I need.”
Black Bird said nothing.
“I need it pretty bad,” Quinn said, his hand trembling inside his pocket. He wasn’t used to talking to people like this. When Black Bird didn’t respond, Quinn said, “You’re reading Othello.” Quinn had acquired a liberal arts degree from a college in Iowa, where he had majored in global political solutions, and he felt that he had to assert himself. “The handkerchief. And Iago, right?”
Black Bird nodded. “This isn’t College Bowl,” he said dismissively. With his finger stopped on the page, he said, “What do you want from me?”

In a lecture at the 2013 Bread Loaf writers’ conference (helpfully excerpted by Graywolf Press), Charles Baxter talked about how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us. As it happens, he has a story collection coming out in February 2015 where each story is named after a vice or a virtue, and each story includes a “request moment.” This story (as well as “Bravery” from BASS 2013) will be in that collection.

I see three requests in this story; or, more accurately, two requests and one non-request, a void where a request should have been. That void steals the show for me.

The overwhelming image I have of the story is one of metamorphosis: how people change, and how, even when they realize they’re changing, they’re unable to prevent the change from occurring.

Matt Quinn starts out as a caring do-gooder in Africa. We see only the faintest glimpse of this in the first paragraph, before his metamorphosis begins: he returns to Minneapolis with some kind of viral arthritis that leaves him in serious pain. Doctors are less than helpful, and the predictable decline begins: from aid worker to thief, Matt robs a guy for enough money to buy street drugs.

Cut to Matt in a seedy bar buying drugs from Black Bird. It’s interesting that Black Bird is reading Act III of Othello; it’s where Desdemona drops her handkerchief, Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago, leading to later disaster. In college I wrote a paper convicting Emilia of Desdemona’s death (hey, come on, that’s the secret of success in humanities classes, come up with an outrageous thesis to perk up the prof who’s read thousands of essays about the depths of Iago’s evil), because she was the only character with enough of a moral compass to know what she was doing was wrong, and she did it anyway. Maybe Black Bird’s in the same category.

What lifts this out of the category of routine drug deal, in story terms, is, I think, Black Bird’s insistence that Matt bring a book as well as cash to their next meeting when the actual exchange of goods and tender will take place. Matt doesn’t bring a book, but he brings cash, and that’s enough for Black Bird. It’s also enough to reclassify Black Bird from someone interesting, to just another dealer. I’m sure he has his story, too; in his story, I’ll bet there was a time when he refused to sell the drugs, for any amount, to a bookless patron, but maybe he’s metamorphosed himself since then.

Then the story does something I find very interesting: it switches pov, from a relatively distant third-person with Matt as the pov character, to first-person a la Harry, the boyfriend Matt met in Africa. This switch surprised me; as I read on, I appreciated more and more the wisdom of this writer’s choice.

Their relationship is fascinating. When they meet, Harry is in Africa on business, selling medical supplies; he’s drawn to Matt’s compassion. But Matt doesn’t seem to see much compassion in Harry; as desperate as he is as he goes from sick to addicted to homeless, he won’t ask Harry for help:

He could be prickly, the boyfriend, and the two of them were still on a trial basis anyway…. The love might not travel if Quinn brought up the subject of debts or his vial arthritis and inflammation of the drug habit he had recently acquired.

Y’think?

Matt does make another request of Harry. It’s perhaps significant in that it shows how incomplete his journey back is. But the absence of request, in the context of their relationship, is the most interesting part of the story for me. Whether or not, in the end, the love travels, is a matter of opinion. Harry thinks it doesn’t; I think otherwise. I think the roles reverse. The word “charity,” while derived from the Latin caritas, is in older translations of the New Testament used as the English equivalent of Greek word agape: love in its chaste, selfless, most divine form; other-centered love.

The closing scene, while beautiful, seems overly explained and perhaps a little on-the-nose. Charles Baxter is not the sort of writer who spells it all out for his readers. That I think he does so, left me wondering if I’d missed the point entirely. Instead of metamorphosis, maybe I should look at, duh, charity. Perhaps one form of charity – love – is to accept, to allow someone else to give.

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2 responses to “BASS 2014: Charles Baxter, “Charity” from McSweeney’s #43

  1. This story earned my seething anger as the first offering in the BASS 2014 collection. One reason is the laziness with which Ethiopia is treated. Harry says it was possible for two white, gay men to escape from view by use of Harry’s “expense account Hiltons.” Which Hilton would that be, Harry? Because there is only one in all of Ethiopia, and it’s in the capital, Addis Ababa. Harry didn’t even put them in any particular part of Ethiopia…they just used to go to “the nearest large city.” I guess that would be Addis Ababa, in which case, if you’ve ever been there (as I have) you wouldn’t just elide mention of that city. Harry talks about how he learned to deal with hucksters while in “Central Africa.” Nobody who knows anything about Africa would consider Ethiopia to be “Central Africa.” Its region is either East Africa or, more typically, the Horn of Africa. Baxter spent like two minutes looking up the fact that Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, and then he just said “Uh, my main character said X when he was in Ethiopia, but he said it in Amharic, which I will not render for you here (because I can’t, because computers don’t know Amharic).” That’s some lazy writing.

    Still, I can get past all of this and see a completely different reading that actually gives me some pleasure. Matt is your typical artsy person, who feels his way through the world. Harry is a left-brained, business-minded person who is in the world to get ahead. Harry finds Matt beautiful, as all bourgeois need their aesthetic stand-in for a meaningful life. They go to the same place and see it in totally different ways. Matt is able to speak the language better, because he is able to sympathize and put himself in the place of those he speaks with.

    They both return, but Matt is touched by his experiences. He can’t just come back and return to materialistic American life. Matt is too sympathetically linked to the troubles of the world. He needs Harry’s hard-boiled pragmatism to help him get along. So where does he go? AHEM!!!! St. Paul (author of the 1 Corinthians missive, so often quoted at weddings, on “charity.”), Minnesota.

    Black Bird (whose very name changes for Harry–Matt and Harry will never see the world in the same way) is the dispenser of a liberal arts education, the thing that snares so many bleeding-hearts like Matt, that takes their money and promises an education in return, but really doesn’t care that much if they really learn anything. Harry thinks he can knock out this impractical way of thinking, but by the time he gets to Matt, it’s too late. Harry’s not really as tough as he thinks he is.

    Still, the Harrys of the world know it’s their job to care for the Matts of the world. They care for them without love (eros). This is, as Karen pointed out, agape love, or charity.

  2. Pingback: Pushcart XLI: Charles Baxter, “Avarice” from VQR #91 | A Just Recompense

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