Issue 53 |

rev. of A Relative Stranger by Charles Baxter


"We should contribute to the surprise of creation," a country pastor says during a sermon in one of Charles Baxter's stories, "by exercising charity."

"Surprise" and "charity" -- these two words suggest both the form and the theme of Charles Baxter's brilliant new collection,
A Relative Stranger. The surprising always happens in these wonderful stories -- a girl at the Detroit zoo threatens to shoot a lion, a baker brings home a street person and frightens his son, a Swedish engineer loses his soul in Detroit, and Ezra Pound wanders the streets of Venice, haunted by his vision of barbaric America. Charles Baxter has presented a picture of contemporary life that is fully imagined, often funny, and scarily real.

Unlike Sherwood Anderson's in-articulate grotesques, however, the Midwesterners in Baxter's stories are mostly talkers and thinkers, whether they are teachers, ministers, ex-sailors or twelve-year-old kids. His characters are not driven by loneliness, but spiritual longing, and even though their acts of craziness or charity (and the two are often confused by their families) are sometimes futile, their empathy for others is convincing and right.
A Relative Stranger is a book that combines the highest craftsmanship with the deepest thought and feeling.