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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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.

Pushcart 2014: Charles Baxter, “What Happens in Hell” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares, Fall 2012

Botticelli's Inferno

Botticelli’s Inferno

“Sir, I am wondering—have you considered lately what happens in Hell?”
No, I hadn’t, but I liked that “lately.” We were on our way from the San Francisco Airport to Palo Alto, and the driver for Bay Area Limo, a Pakistani American whose name was Niazi, was glancing repeatedly in the rearview mirror to check me out. After all, there I was, a privileged person—a hegemon of some sort—in the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car, cushioned by the camel-colored leather as I swigged my bottled water. Like other Americans of my class and station, I know the importance of staying hydrated. And there he was, up front, behind the wheel on a late sunny Saturday afternoon, speeding down California State Highway 101, missing (he had informed me almost as soon as I got into the car) the prayer service and sermon at his Bay Area mosque. The subject of the sermon would be Islamic inheritance laws—a subject that had led quite naturally to the subject of death and the afterlife.
I don’t really enjoy sitting in the backseat of Lincoln Town Cars. I don’t like being treated as some sort of important personage. I’m a Midwesterner by location and temperament and don’t even cotton to being called “Sir.” So I try to be polite (“Just call me Charlie”) and take my shoes off, so to speak, in deference to foreign customs, as Mrs. Moore does in A Passage to India.
“No,” I said, “I haven’t. What happens in Hell?” I asked.

Thanks to my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I know quite a bit about the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal versions of Hell. Let me tell you, they’ve got nothing on Niazi: in his Hell, every day your skin is burned off, then is replenished, only to be burned off again the next day: “And the pain is always fresh pain.”

I confess: I rarely have any idea what Charles Baxter is doing, at least in an overall sense, though I always enjoy going along for the ride. But here, I think I get it: while there’s a tour of class ressentiment via Marx and Nietzsche, the point is showing us what happens in Hell, in all its fresh-pain-daily glory, via his experience in a car accident.

I’m departing from the theme of “truth” which with I’ve been obsessed for the past several pieces, and heading in a new direction: time. Some comedian – maybe Paula Poundstone or Ellen Degeneres – did a bit about the time lapse between stubbing your toe and feeling the ouch; you wait for it, you know it’s coming, and the anticipation is as bad as the actual pain that finally, after what seems like an eternity (it can’t be more than a second), arrives. It does take time for the electrical wiring of the nervous system to register hurt, and return pain.

After the accident, a witness told Baxter the car had rolled over four times; he noticed he’d popped the belt loops on his jeans (“How was that possible?” I don’t know, I can’t even imagine; the belt, sure, but the belt loops?) and spoke with EMTs and police. He felt fine. He continued to the airport, and back to his life. A few other things went on; better you should hear them from him.

Then – the pain started:

As an unsteady humanist, I don’t believe in much, and the virtues that I do believe in – goodness, charity, bravery – abandon me in the moments after that accident.

Fresh pain daily. The worst Hell there is, may be discovering you don’t meet your own standards. And we’re all there, every day.

BASS 2013: Charles Baxter, “Bravery” from Tin House #54, Winter 2012

The city of Prague is haunted by the armies that have invaded it, by Catholicism, and by Franz Kafka, among other presences. I visited the city three years ago, and in one of its chapels had jolting experience that led directly to this story. That memory found itself grafted onto a scene I had already witnessed in downtown Palo Alto, where some teenaged girls riding in a car were taunting some boys standing together at a street corner. But the core of the story grew out of the quarrel I had 34 years ago with my wife about who would feed the baby. I never forgot that quarrel because it seemed telling to me. Everything else in the story is the essential brick and mortar of invention, the imaginary, and the impossible.

~~ Charles Baxter, BASS 2013 Contributor Note

A woman in four acts: Susan as a silly teenager, sure of her looks but still rooted in kindness; as a young woman drawn to kindness; a newlywed who, under the influence of Prague, starts to come a little unglued; and a walking maternal conqueror. I’m not sure what holds it together, other than Susan herself, or what any of it has to do with bravery, but individually, each of the four acts is detailed in a way that’s highly memorable.

Susan as a teenager is a bit of a flirt, but she also has an appetite for kindness; she’s not one of those women drawn to troublemakers. Her college roommate teases her about it, in fact:

Years later, in college, her roommate said to her, “You always go for the kind ones, the considerate ones, those types. I mean, where’s the fun? I hate those guys. They’re so humane, and shit like that. Give me a troublemaker any day.”
“Yeah, but a troublemaker will give you trouble.” She was painting her toenails, even though the guys she dated never noticed her toenails. “Trouble comes home. It moves in. It’s contagious.”
“I can take it. I’m an old-fashioned girl,” her roommate said, with her complicated irony.

There’s something very important about this passage, but I can’t quite put my finger on it: the “complicated irony” which seems to show up over and over, the notion of kindness, and trouble. Kindness that runs into a buzzsaw of trouble.

The second act, what Roger Ebert used to call “meet-cute,” takes place in an art gallery when a fellow patron asks Susan if she smells something; he thinks there’s a gas leak. She isn’t sure what he’s up to (“Metaphor, irony, a come on?”) and neither was I, until I thought about it for a while; he’s being painted as this very nice guy, “a doctor to the core,” so if he’d truly thought there was a gas leak in the art gallery, wouldn’t he have alerted the other patrons? A come on, then, and a successful one. He offers her a monogrammed handkerchief when she spills her drink; being attracted to kindness, she’s drawn to him ends up with his phone number. It isn’t until he hears her sing, however, that he becomes equally interested (“Your voice. Wow. I was undone”). We all earn love somehow.

The honeymoon becomes the scene for a turning point. I’ve never been to Prague – never been anywhere, really – but I love this description of the city:

In Prague, the Soviet-era hotel where they stayed smelled of onions, chlorine, and goulash. The lobby had mirrored ceilings. Upstairs, the rooms were small and claustrophobic; the TV didn’t work, and all the signs were nonsensical. Pozor! for example, which seems to mean “Beware!” Beware of what? The signs were garbles of consonants. Prague wasn’t Kafka’s birthplace for nothing.

There’s a strange series of events involving an old crone in a church made of babies (“We’ve already been to a chapel, seen a baby, talked to a crazy person, had an accident, and it’s only eleven,” as Elijah says) and here Susan starts to get a bit strange. I’m perplexed by this turn.

I’m even more perplexed by the final act, in which the mother instinct runs amok and Elijah runs a bit amok as a result. It’s rendered in such a way as to be completely believable, yet I don’t understand the overall path. Something about Susan becoming the strong one? Something about defeating kindness? Something about bravery? I’m not sure. I go back to the Kafka I’ve read, looking for an anchor, but I don’t find one. It’s a bit frustrating, all these fascinating threads I have, but I’m unable to make the cloth.

I’ve always been intimidated by Baxter. This is only the second story I’ve read by him; the first was also in a BASS volume – “The Cousins” from 2010, my first BASS blogging – and I put that one off out of sheer fear. I guess I have more work to do before I’m up to this story as a whole. But I still enjoyed the threads.

BASS 2010: Charles Baxter – The Cousins

I skipped over this story when I started reading BASS 2010, because I’m afraid of Charles Baxter. A few years ago when I was agonizing over one of my stories, I read his collection of essays and lectures on writing, Burning Down The House. It terrified me. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was talking about defamiliarization and responsibility when I was looking at sentences and words and paragraphs. To be fair, I really needed, and was looking for, something more like What If? or the Gotham Writer’s Workshop book, something nuts-and-bolts, and that I ended up with Baxter – and with From Where You Dream and a selection of other more advanced books about writing process shows how confused and ignorant I was. I still don’t understand the process books. But at least now I see a difference between them and the more basic texts. Some day I’ll move on to these Great Ideas, maybe soon, but first I need to get Beginnings, Middles, and Endings under control.

Having now read this story, since the Zoetrope BASS office started on it, I found it more scary in the abstract than in the reading. It’s an engaging story. I don’t fully understand it, and the more I read about it from Zoetropers who’ve been through MFAs and Bread Loaf and Tin House, the more I understand I don’t understand, but even at face value it’s good reading.

At face value, the story concerns two cousins: narrator Benjamin, twenty years older, a Minnesota lawyer who’d done his sowing wild oats in New York years before as an aspiring actor slash waiter; and Brantford, still in the New York phase, his college fund depleted. The opening scene has them meeting at a high-priced restaurant for lunch, at Brantford’s urging. Benjamin’s admiration for his cousin is clear: “…he was one of those people who always makes you happier the moment you see them.” It strikes me now, how oddly this sentence is worded, how wrong the tenses and numbers are. Now that I’ve heard some comments from some friends at Zoetrope, I don’t think that’s by accident. At lunch, Brantford says he feels like he’s murdered someone, though he’s not sure who or when or why or that he even did, it just feels like he might have. Benjamin then goes into a flashback about his youth in New York, a hot party with a famous poet who called him “the scum of the earth” and where he lost his girlfriend Giulietta and encounters a drunk in the subway, and we learn more in a flash-forward about his present life. This is one of the hallmarks of the story, the back-and-forth timeline, and it’s hard to say just what the “present” of the story is or when something is taking place. The story continues in this way, with other important encounters and revelations about both cousins, and back-and-forth time line motion, culminating with Benjamin’s very pointed conversation with a Minneapolis cab driver, the kind of conversation in a story that screams “Pay Attention! Highly Important Dialogue! Deep Symbolism!” and then his bit of slightly strange behavior at his house. It sounds very confusing to relate. It isn’t that confusing in the reading, until you try to put it all together and explain it without revealing key points that would diminish the effect of surprise should someone wish to read it.

Favorite lines:

But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope your life will go on forever.

The Missouri Review had this to say of this story, which of all the BASS 2010 stories they admired most: ” What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is ‘occupying the attention and efforts’ of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy.” I find it annoying that non-linear here is used as a compliment, whereas I have been scolded on many occasions for not staying in the moment, in the present of the story, for lapsing into flashbacks and musings on what came before, and instead of telling me that I am not yet ready to advance to that, I’ve been told “No!” like a bad puppy. Either that, or you have to be Charles Baxter to get away with it.

I found a review in the NYT by Joyce Carol Oates (who I am still struggling to like after having read Steve Almond’s description of her in his Kurt Vonnegut essay) which called Benjamin “genial” and his actions at the very end “playful”. I am surprised by those descriptions. If I’d been presented with a list of words, I’m not sure I would have chosen them. But I’m not about to second-guess Joyce Carol Oates, no matter how she came across in the essay.

And then there’s the zombie idea. I don’t even want to think about that. I’m not up on zombie lore. Maybe that’s why I don’t “get” it. Something is definitely off with Benjamin, but does it have to be zombiehood?

I’m glad I stopped hiding and read the story. I should put him on the active list of people to read. I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but at least I should try. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll read Salman Rushie as well. But that’s probably a ways off yet.