Pushcart XLI: Charles Baxter, “Avarice” from VQR #91

My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate. Poor thing, she’s a freeloader and can’t manage her own life anywhere in the world. Therefore she’s here….
The simple explanation for her having taken up residence here is that she appeared at the downtown Minneapolis bus depot last week, having come from Tulsa, where she lived in destitution. She barely had money for bus fare. My son, Wesley, her ex-husband, had to take her in. We all did. However, the more honest explanation for her arrival is that Jesus sent her to me.

~~ Complete story available online at Virginia Quarterly Review

In February 2015, Charles Baxter published a story  collection titled There’s Something I Want You To Do. I first encountered a story from this volume, “Bravery”, in 2013 via the BASS of that year; I wasn’t sure what to make of it, since it seemed to have many elements but I couldn’t see the connecting thread. In 2014, also via BASS, I came across a second Baxter story and learned about the collection, which was not yet published. Each story was named after a virtue or vice, and included a request. If I may repeat myself (and copy a paragraph from my post on “Charity“), his 2013 Bread Loaf lecture considers how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us.

And now Pushcart brings me a third story from the collection, and I have learned something new: the stories are loosely connected in that several of the characters appear multiple times. Since I’ve only read three of the stories, I haven’t seen that, but I’ve read that both Dolores, our narrator here, and her son Wes, both appear in other stories.

So much goes on in this story – as it does in all of these stories Baxter included in his 2015, There’s Something I Want You to Do – yet I have trouble pulling it all together beyond the completely inadequate description of “Thought of a woman who knows she will soon die.” I had a similar inability to fully grasp the first story. Now I’m beginning to think it’s the collection as a whole that perhaps holds the answer, that show the thread weaving from beginning to end. But I could be mistaken. I’m afraid my inability to find a point of focus has replicated itself in this post; please forgive me as I ramble on.

I see several requests in this story, as I have in the ones before. I think the central one is a request that has not yet been made: Dolores will ask Corinne to be with her when the time comes. That is why Jesus sent Corinne, after all. Corinne seems like an odd choice, since she abandoned Dolores’ son Wes, her husband (now remarried), and Jeremy, her son, soon after Jeremy’s birth (if this sounds confusing, well, this family dynamic is indeed confusing). Tough she apparently supported herself by working as a nurse in another city for most of the 16 years since, she’s now described as a decompensating bipolar depressive of inappropriate appearance and manner. I wonder if post-partum depression is implied as the reason for her desertion years before, or if her mental health has been precarious all along. “How lovely is her madness to me now,” Dolores tells us, for her madness is how Jesus brought her here, just when she’s needed.

Dolores has her own tragedy as well. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver when Wes was very small. ” The socialite’s out of prison now, but my husband is still under the ground….” she tells us. And she admits she would have murdered the woman if she had escaped justice.

Looking at me, you would probably not think me capable of murder, but I found that black coal in my soul, and it burned fiercely. I loved having it there.
All my life, I worked as a librarian in the uptown branch. A librarian with the heart of a murderer! No one guessed.

I have no trouble believing that. I believe we are all capable of harboring murderous thoughts; murderous deeds are another matter. Dolores’ Christianity plays a major role in this story. I’m so used to reading stories about Christians who are saints or hypocrites, it’s nice to read about a Christian who seems to be merely human, more on the saintly side, but who cherishes the one sinful impulse she has. I can understand that. It’s the Tree in the Garden; if we can’t conceive of sin, what’s the virtue in not succumbing to it?

Avarice is woven through the story. Teenage Jeremy is outraged by the poisoning of elephant drinking holes in order to obtain their ivory for carvings. Corinne frequently rants about capitalists, her pension fund lost by greedy investors. And Dolores lays her husband’s death, not on drunken driving, but on avarice:

But I still think of that woman, that socialite, driving away from my dying husband, and of what was going through her head, and what I’ve decided is that (1) she couldn’t take responsibility for her actions, and (2) if she did, she would lose the blue Mercedes, and the big house in the suburbs, and the Royal Copenhagen china, and the Waterford crystal, and the swimming pool in back, and the health-club membership, and the closet full of Manolo Blahnik shoes. All the money in the bank, boiling with possibility, she’d lose all that, and the equities upping and downing on the stock exchange. How she was invested! How she must have loved her things, as we all do. God has a name for this love: avarice. We Americans are running a laboratory for it, and we are the mice and rats, being tested, to see how much of it we can stand.

Dolores describes how she and Corinne will walk through a variety of Minneapolis landmarks, ending in Father Hennepin Park. Father Hennepin was a French priest and, in the late 17th century, explorer who traveled from Louisiana to Canada tracing the Mississippi River, was captured by the Sioux Indians for a time, and published several accounts of his travels characterized by some as “highly embellished”. It’s possible there’s some connection, besides religious belief, between him and Dolores, but I don’t see it.

But I think his religious imprint, as well as Dolores’ faith, is central to this story, perhaps the collection, in a way I can’t quite parse. Buzzy Jackson’s Boston Globe review takes her faith seriously: “While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.” In LARB, Susannah Shive has a different take, one that draws on the character’s appearance in an earlier story (where she apparently has an interest in extraterrestrials) and characters from other stories and concludes, “[I]f we’re not willing to assert that faith will conquer nothing, we must align ourselves with an eccentric zealot.” I don’t see the Dolores of this story as eccentric, nor as that much of a zealot.

What draws me to this section combines the simple, natural beauty of the passage with narrative technique. One of the questions I always have with first-person narrations is: Who is the narrator talking to, or thinking at? It’s one of those suspension of disbelief traits of fiction, that we read without considering that, but it’s always present, and here it’s showcased with particular clarity as a leaf falls into Dolores’ lap and she narrates: “Here. I place it before you.” Baxter includes an image of a maple leaf, something I’ve never seen in Pushcart or BASS. First, who is she talking to? The reader, Corinne, God, some undefined “you”? Breaking the fourth wall, except in an epistolary work, is unusual. And second, why include an actual image for something as familiar as a maple leaf?

Henceforth my patience will be endless, thanks to the brevity of time. Stillness will steal over me as I study the world within. When I look down into my lap, I’ll see in this delicate object the three major parts, with their branching veins, and the ten points of the leaf, and the particular bright red-rust-gold color, but it’s the veins I’ll return to, so like our own, our capillaries.
I’ll finger the maple leaf tenderly and wonder why we find it beautiful and will answer the question by saying that it’s God-given.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this leaf in her terms. What are the ten points? I’m looking and I can see 11 points, or 5 points, or maybe 27 or 29 points, but I can’t come up with ten points. The Canadian leaf logo has 11 points. The three major parts are easy to see as the Catholic Trinity, the similarity of veins suggests a unity of all nature, but what ten points? The Ten Commandments? There are ten stories in the collection, and in Jackson’s interview referenced above, Baxter admitted using the Ten Commandments as a structuring concept. And again I think the collection has a deep structure that is missed by chopping it up into individual stories, but now I have actual evidence.

The final paragraphs beautifully outline the simplicity and complexity of Dolores’ faith. I regret reading about her extraterrestrial eccentricity, because I see her, in this story, as a true Christian. Shive sees Narnia; being a heathen, I recall Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I also recall Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

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One response to “Pushcart XLI: Charles Baxter, “Avarice” from VQR #91

  1. I miss literature that cares about developing theme as much as about developing character. So you’d think I’d really love Baxter’s running virtues/vices stories, where the titles give us such a clue into the thematic ground each is covering. I do like them, but I haven’t found them, so far, to really shake me. This was my favorite, probably, of the few I’ve seen. I don’t have much to add, really, to what you’ve said. I was sort of following the idea that each character might have an avarice themselves: Corrine rails at capitalism, but is herself unable to control her own appetite; Jeremy is seen using his little technology devices while railing against the same third-world countries where they are made for killing elephants. But is Dolores’ hidden murderous desire itself born of avarice? Avarice drives a lot of what’s going on around her, but is it critical to her, personally? Is it avarice of her to want someone with her when she dies? Or is this story something of a celebration of a woman who has overcome avarice, an elegy to the beautiful thing a life can be if it shakes free of it?

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