There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories

by Charles Baxter

(Pantheon, $24, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Charles Baxter has written many novels and several short story collections. His novels are The Feast of Love, which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Soul Thief; Saul and Patsy; Shadow Play; and First Light. His stories can be found in Gryphon; Believers; A Relative Stranger; Through the Safety Net; and Harmony of the World.  Several pieces in his newest collection also were included in Best American Short Stories. He also has published  three poetry collections  and  two books of essays on fiction and has edited other books. Born in Minnesota, Baxter, now 67, teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College

What is this book about?

There are 10 interconnected stories in There’s Something I Want You to Do, and their titles are those of five vices and five virtues, such as Bravery, Charity, Loyalty, Lust and Sloth. Those behaviors, good and bad, are reflected in tales whose protagonists struggle with everyday realities and far deeper existential questions.  The characters include a shy architect who stops a woman – no shrinking violet she – from plunging off a bridge into the Mississippi River, and a pediatrician and father who has private conversations with the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, which has taken to haunting Minneapolis, where most of these stories are set. These and others reappear and disappear in these linked stories that read like a novel. In them, Baxter explores what it means to need, what it means to help and what it means to love.

Why you’ll like it:

Being a poet as well as a highly gifted writer of prose, Baxter has not only created stories filled with tensions and unexpected connections, he tells them with a lyrical style that deftly evokes the character in a few words.  In “Chastity,” he describes the would-be bridge jumper this way: “Her speech style was oddly animated, and she seemed very pretty in a drab sort of way, like an honorable-mention beauty queen who hadn’t taken proper care of herself.”

Got it.

Reading  authors like Baxter, who write with both ease and authority, is a pleasure.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Five stories named for virtues and five for vices make up this collection from a master craftsman. Set mostly in Minneapolis, Baxter’s interlinked narratives feature ordinary people extending themselves beyond the ordinary for those they love, or used to love, or cannot love. In “Bravery,” a pediatrician and his new wife visit Prague, where a madwoman’s ranting appears to predict their future. In “Chastity,” a lonely architect stops a woman from jumping off a bridge; she turns out to be a stand-up comedian whose dark humor and elusive emotions enthrall him. “Loyalty” focuses on a mechanic as he takes his destitute first wife back into his home; years before, she’d abandoned her family, and now she blogs about the experience. “Sloth” shows the pediatrician from “Bravery” in middle age, talking suspense with the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, who haunts Minneapolis. Baxter’s characters muddle through small but pivotal moments, not so much confrontations as crossroads between love and destruction, desire and death: a translator dreams of the poet whose work defies translation, a gay businessman searches the Minneapolis underworld for his lost lover, and a dying woman looks forward to the resurrection like others look forward to weekend football. The prose resonates with distinctive turns of phrase that capture human ambiguity and uncertainty: trouble waits patiently at home, irony is the new chastity, and a dying man lives in the house that pain designed for him.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “The author’s sixth collection of short fiction features stories linked by place, character, verbal echo, and a master’s hand for foibles and fellowship. The place is mostly Minneapolis, the repeated phrase is that of the title, with its modest appeal and its larger reminder that no one gets through life without hearing a call or cry for help. A young pediatrician bravely breaks up a mugging. A man who has been mugged (and whose assailant in another story will need help with his drug addiction) stops a woman from leaping off a bridge. A man gives shelter to his ex-wife after she turns into a bag lady. (The book’s last use of the title comes somewhat too pointedly from a Schindler Jew.) Several characters have encounters that suggest nonhuman help is available (a spiritual element also lies in the ten stories named after five virtues and five vices). The pediatrician’s wife on their Prague honeymoon hears a crone’s prophecy of her pregnancy. The doctor, the book’s most frequently recurring figure, spends most of one story talking to the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock on a park bench and then asks his wife to pray for him. Bare storylines can’t convey the quickly captivating simple narratives around them or the revealing moments to which Baxter brings the reader, like the doctor’s exhilaration with the physical violence of beating the muggers. Similarly, Baxter, a published poet, at times pushes his fluid, controlled prose to headier altitudes, as in “high wispy cirrus clouds threading the sky like promissory notes.” Nearly as organic as a novel, this is more intriguing, more fun in disclosing its connective tissues through tales that stand well on their own.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “In one of his essays on craft, Baxter talks about the art of subtext. His new collection of short stories shows him to be a master of that art. His characters, mostly Midwesterners, are smart and well educated but not glib and have strong feelings they can’t articulate fully. The book is divided into two sections, with the first part comprising stories titled after classical virtues, e.g., bravery, loyalty, and forbearance, and the second titled for five of the seven deadly sins (lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and vanity). This structure may seem overly programmatic and potentially predictable, but the stories themselves are anything but. A few repeating characters play leading roles in both parts. Moreover, the stories named after virtues don’t necessarily end happily, nor are those named after vices free of heroic gestures. Among the memorable characters are Benny, who repeatedly falls for difficult women (“Chastity”) and falls apart when they leave (“Lust”), and Elijah, a sweet-mannered, handsome young pediatrician who, a few decades later, displays a paunch and eats jumbo bags of potato chips while alone in his car (“Gluttony”) even as he fiercely defends the honor of his seemingly taciturn son. VERDICT Baxter’s delightful stories will make readers hungry for more. Fortunately, there are more out there, and, one hopes, more to come.”

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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