Charles Baxter’s latest collection of fiction is divided in two, with half the stories named for virtues and the other half for vices. But the titles aren’t simple, definitive descriptions of Baxter’s characters, whose actions range from selfless to selfish and back again. They’re too well-drawn to be motivated solely by avarice or lust or loyalty or courage; they’re complex, vulnerable to the whims of others, and sometimes their lives take ambiguous turns. By reflecting these many points of light, Baxter creates empathetic and nuanced portraits of human nature.
Author of five other collections and four novels, including the National Book Award nominee The Feast of Love, Baxter builds each of the linked stories in There’s Something I Want You to Do around a request, which makes sense: Aren’t we always doing something we don’t really want to do at the bidding of others? The idea may sound a bit high concept, but Baxter, who’s also a poet, is such an elegant writer that the conceit never feels forced. (“[T]he sparse impersonality of her living room had the quality of an emergency, as if no one had bothered to think about what should be located here or had the patience or inclination to arrange it,” he writes of one character’s apartment.)
And so a deeply troubled homeless woman asks the ex-husband she abandoned for shelter. A mother demands her husband put down their infant son and let her take care of him. A friend offers his buddy wry advice on an affectation (“You shouldn’t be carrying around someone’s hair in your pocket. It’s like a horror movie”). The requests — sometimes weighty, sometimes seemingly inconsequential — turn each character toward a new path, one that could shape the course of his or her life.
The stories are mostly set in and around Minneapolis, Baxter’s hometown (he teaches at the University of Minnesota). Characters show up, disappear, resurface later. Harry, who flies east from Seattle in Charity to track down the missing love of his life — “my boyfriend, my soul mate, my future life,” who turns out to be more of a romantic speed bump than any of those things — reappears in Vanity, seated on an airplane chatting with a Holocaust survivor who is unfazed by the turbulent flight.
The pediatric doctor in Bravery — Eli, whose wife orders him to stop “mothering” their baby, saying “This is not your territory. This is my territory, and you can’t have it” — turns to comfort in food in Gluttony. “He found himself in the car eating beef jerky and the contents of a jumbo bag of potato chips. He didn’t remember buying either one. ... The food carried some responsibility for his excesses. It had desires, especially the desire to be consumed.” Just like the plate of cookies he can’t stop himself from reaching for when the parents of his teenage son’s girlfriend demand to discuss their daughter’s abortion.
Eli develops a casual friendship with Benny Takemitsu from Chastity, in which Benny falls in love with an aspiring comedian who refuses to kiss him, though she’ll eventually bear his child. He stops her from jumping off a bridge — he thinks. He can’t be sure: “Irony is the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.” Stopping her, though, isn’t saving her: “[W]hat he didn’t understand at the time (as he does now, of course) is that what he mistook for a charade and a pastime, a stunt, a form of harmless amateur wickedness, was for her a tether that tied her to the Earth.”
In Lust, we meet a younger, less reflective Benny who has just been dumped by an earlier girlfriend and is intent on blowing all his money at a casino to complete his destruction. He can’t quite make that happen, and Baxter ends the story on a lovely quiet moment Benny spends with a dying friend, his desire to trash his life all but forgotten.
The foremost illustration of Baxter’s skill comes in the best stories, Loyalty and Avarice. In the first story, a man abandoned by his first wife takes her in years later when he’s remarried and the baby she abandoned is an angry teenager. “Life does us no favors,” he says by way of explanation. “We have these obligations to our human ruins.” The family returns in Avarice, only this time the story of the prodigal, homeless ex-wife is told from the point of view of her former mother-in-law, who has found a lump in her breast and envisions this lost soul as the person who will care for her as she dies. “You need a companion for what I’m about to do, and she’ll be mine.”
The stories aren’t all as effective. In the not-entirely successful Sloth, Eli sees ghosts, specifically the specter of Alfred Hitchcock, a flight of fantasy that seems out of place. But overall, There Is Something I Want You To Do reminds us that happiness, like morality, is fluid and that we must guard it accordingly.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.