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
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.See all Editorial Reviews