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Through the Safety Net: stories Paperback – September 29, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

Read one paragraph of a Charles Baxter story, and you know you're in the hands of a master. Consider, for example, the opening line of "Winter Journey": "Harrelson, perpetual Ph.D. student, poverty-stricken dissertation nonfinisher, academic man of all work, gourmand, stands in the tiny kitchen cluttered with yellow note pads, a basketball, books, misplaced bookmarks, and boxes of ant killer, staring down at a dented saucepan of cold soup." In a single sentence, Baxter has limned a whole life. The story that follows of Harrelson's drunken drive through the snow to rescue a fiancée who no longer wants him simply fills in the contours. Baxter specializes in ordinary lives--each story is an accretion of details, some funny, some disturbing, that create a complete world. The events that happen in this world are equally ordinary--people make love, make dinner, make decisions they may or may not carry out--but just when you think you know where things are going, Baxter throws in a gentle curve that sends you right off the road.

The title story, for example, takes the reader through a day in the life of Dinah Nadler, a dentist, wife, and mother whose regular consultations with a psychic take a dark turn. His warning that there's a "black spot ... blinking, at the horizon" of her life freights even the most commonplace actions with dread. Baxter only hints at what might be happening in Dinah's life, but he does it so well that the ambiguity of his mild-seeming conclusion, "Then she went back to the window, cupped her hands on both sides of her face, and looked outside to see what was happening," is truly chilling. Each of the 11 stories in this collection demonstrates Baxter's quirky, chiaroscuro view of the universe, and also stands as testimony to the fact that he is one of the best fiction writers at work today. --Alix Wilber

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Baxter dives into the undercurrents of middle-class American life in these eleven arresting, often mesmerizing stories. Whether they know it or not, Baxter's characters are floating above an abyss of unruly desire, inexplicable dread, unforeseen tragedy, and sudden moments of grace.

A drunken graduate student hurtles cheerfully through a snowstorm to rescue a fiancee who no longer wants him. A hospital maintenance worker makes a perverse bid for his place in the sunlight of celebrity. A man and a woman who have lost their only child cling fiercely to the one thing they have left of her--their grief. Lit by the quiet lightning of Baxter's prose, Through the Safety Net is filled with rare artistry and feeling.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679776494
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679776499
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,247,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
This collection is made extraordinary largely because of the terrain Baxter explores. He pokes into moments like a retired businessman's struggle to stay retired ("Cataract"), a married couple's trip to New Mexico that is meant to help them cope with the recent death of their infant daughter ("Surprised by Joy") and does so in a way that makes them particular to the characters involved. "Winter Journey" is "about" a couple's breakup, and "Talk Show" involves a boy's first experience with death, but you wouldn't describe those stories that way if talking to a friend. You'd talk about the details, the way the protagonist's car in "Winter Journey" "smells of burned electrical wire and popcorn," and the amazing depth we are treated to in "Talk Show." The latter story is written in a very odd third person that sometimes takes us into a young boy's mind and sometimes keeps us external. It's a lovely story. "Gryphon" is audaciously funny and "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" presents us with two of Baxter's most cherishable personages, who appear in later collections. This book is poignant and sensitive and wry and very very good on the second and third reads.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John Van Wagner on April 25, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This lyrical, intensely personal collection of short stories mines the depths of simple souls in various stages of turmoil. A couple struggling with the death of their baby, a man painting his way out of the drudgery of his misspent life and into the melancholoy colors of old age, a young man intent on gaining fame through the sensational act of smashing through plate glass--these small stories are rendered large through gentle ironies woven into elegant prose.
This collection could easily fall into common trap of hackneyed, pointless introspection, but it doesn't. Each story is far too clever, well-crafted, and even funny. In their own way each is wrapped in a veneer of hope, possibility, or at least, dignity. One of the cleverest of the bunch is "Gryphon", in which a young boy learns about the world from an eccentric teacher he's not likely to forget soon. "A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron" is an intimate pastiche, a beautiful literary take on a famous French painting. "Stained Glass" spins a familiar tale of love's follies with a delightful twist.
Baxter brings the beauty of language and the saving grace of personal affection to his characters. In a short time they become old acquaintances. They're people one can continue to learn from the more one thinks.
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