Charles Baxter: A Minneapolis Writer of Minneapolis Things In Minneapolis

When I was little, my parents bought me a book about myself. Some publisher had cooked up a sweet gimmick: It would insert personalized details — the name of your kid, your kid’s friends, your street, your hometown — into a Christmas adventure-story template. I know I met Santa and I think I was accompanied by a friendly alligator and I read this flimsy little illustrated pamphlet uninterruptedly for months. Some enterprising huckster must be sucking money away from parents with a similar concept these days.

Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do reminds me of that book, and I wish what I meant is that there are talking alligators in it. These collected stories don’t so much take place in Minneapolis as take place in a city that is relentlessly referred to as “Minneapolis.” The Mississippi River is never just “the river.” Lake Calhoun is never just “the lake.” And the Stone Arch Bridge is most certainly never just “the bridge.” But Baxter, though born here and for years a fixture in the University of Minnesota, rarely captures the feel of the city or its residents — these tales could be taking place in any mid-sized metro with rivers, lakes and bridges if not for the author determinedly reminding us otherwise.

In each of these ten stories — half named for virtues, half for vices — lives are upended by events great and small, and characters attempt to regain their balance with varying degrees of surefootedness. I preferred the first two stories here (a husband’s monumental decency subtly wears at his wife’s sense of herself; an estranged wife returns to entrance her former husband with her disheveled helplessness) which makes me wonder if I’d have preferred whichever two stories I read first, if I was gradually disengaged from the others by how persistently Baxter’s men and women are stuck between stations, neither naturalistic enough to suggest the complexity of an actual human life nor quite stylized enough to seem at home in his fable-like narratives. As with Baxter’s insistent place-naming, the actions he describes come to feel like a kind of shorthand, a demand for recognition and identification that’s unearned by the storytelling.

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