There is no greater explorer of tepidity than Charles Baxter. The author of four collections of stories and five novels has carved a major niche with tales told in a minor key. Few of his stories contain sharp twists or easy plot points on which to hang a summary, yet they’re more memorable than most.
Take the title story, published in 1985’s Through the Safety Net, which concerns a fourth-grade classroom upended by Miss Ferenczi, a substitute teacher with a belief in ‘substitute facts’, a love of tarot cards and a fondness for saying things such as, ‘There is no death. You must never be afraid.’ When Miss Ferenczi is removed from her post, the narrator feels the loss of her mystery, the next teacher instructing about ‘an insect’s hard outer shell, the exoskeleton and the usual parts of the mouth’. In other words, the surface stuff that barely matters. That also happens to be Baxter’s trick: show the readers all of the surface stuff and make them curious about the mystery beneath.
In ‘Poor Devil,’ a man and his ex-wife are clearing out their old home; through the sweat comes a reckoning with the poor husband he used to be. How masterfully he draws the ineffective means by which we express ourselves.
‘Snow’ begins, ‘Twelve years old, and I was so bored I was combing my hair just for the hell of it.’ Or in the new ‘The Cousins,’ after a public embarrassment the narrator took to the streets of New York and ‘shouted at a light pole’, There is humour and truth in both the miniscule and the grand in Baxter’s writing, which makes this book as memorable as his work always is.