June 19: “Bravery” by Charles Baxter

Happy Father’s Day, Story366! If you’re not a father, then I hope you had a good day, anyway. I had an excellent Father’s Day, as I got to spend a lot of it with my boys, who took me to lunch at an Indian restaurant, played with me for a while at a playground, and also got me a mini TV for my treadmill and an awesome robot card that dances and sings (or makes robot noises, bee oop bop beep bop, that kind of thing). I went to the Cub game tonight and sold beer as well and watched the Beloved slug five home runs en route to a 10-5 victory. Now I’m back with my kids again and I’m splitting some gyros with one boy and watching the other one draw cool pictures. Perfect, really.

I also read from Charles Baxter’s latest collection, There’s Something I Want You To Do, out from Pantheon, another part of the day that I enjoyed. Baxter is truly one of America’s icons, the author of over a dozen books, one of the true luminaries in our field. I looked for a father-type figure or story or collection to write about today, and while I didn’t find any stories that yelled, “Father’s Day” while skimming through tables of contents. Instead, I’ve chosen a figure that more of less fits the bill, as a writer and teacher of American letters. Plus, like with my post on Aurelie Sheehan on Mother’s Day—that author chosen partly because she’s actually a mother—Baxter is a dad. So, Charles Baxter!

There’s Something I Want to Tell You is a collection of linked stories, actually, and after I read a couple, I thought they were about the same two characters, Susan and Elijah. I started with the first story, “Bravery,” which I’m writing about today, the story of a couple progression from meeting each other through attempting to get pregnant on a vacation in Prague. I then skipped around a bit, next reading “Sloth,” and found the same couple (and the titular line), only this one was told from Elijah’s point of view and “Bravery” was told from Susan’s (both in a close third person). To make sure, I read another piece, “Charity,” which has different characters in it, though those characters interact with people from different stories, who interact with the couple from the first two I read, so everything takes place in the same universe. I’ll also note that the ten stories are split between five virtues (bravery and charity, e.g.) and five of the deadly sins (sloth, etc.). I like the interlinking, but am not sure, after reading three of the ten, what the virtue/sin dichotomy angle does for the book, though hey, I like the stories, so I’m not too concerned (but am curious).

“Bravery,” again, is about Susan and Elijah. We start off by finding out that Susan was a bit wild as a teen, Baxter starting with a scene from her high school days when she would drive around in a convertible, sit in the back seat (while a less attractive and noticeable girl drove), and flirt with guys in passing cars. She specifically took a liking to kind boys, the boys who didn’t whoop or holler or make nasty suggestions, but the boys who smiled and waved, who showed interest but controlled themselves. This preference continued on into college and beyond, and when she met Elijah at a party, she was instantly attracted to how kind he was, how he treated her humanely and honestly. She was the one who pursues the relationship, makes sure it turns into a marriage. Clearly, Susan isn’t afraid to go out and get something she wants, and what she wants is a good man.

What’s interesting about “Bravery” is that the plot is subtle. The plot is the relationship between Susan and Elijah, how they evolve from people who meet to a married couple, Elijah a doctor—and already married to his work—and Susan more or less focused on him. On first read, I was thinking that there’d be an inciting incident to a larger plot, some sort of obstacle for the couple to overcome, but really, the arc of the story focuses on Susan and her relationship with Elijah. When I was done with “Bravery,” I found that particularly refreshing.

As noted, the couple takes a trip to Prague with the hopes of Susan getting pregnant. It works, Susan giving birth to Raphael nine months later (there’s a long paragraph I enjoyed that runs down the names of the angels, why all the others wouldn’t do and Raphael is perfect). The story then jumps ahead a bit to a fight that Susan and Elijah have, over how to hold and feed the baby, and Elijah storms out, only to come back and … okay, I’ll not reveal what happened to Elijah on his cool-down. This story doesn’t have a whole lot of plot, but Elijah’s sojourn produces an interesting twist, though not one that necessarily changes the story or its characters. Again, this is an interesting piece, how Baxter develops his characters, what he focuses on, how he more or less avoids conventional plot. He is one of the masters, and he’s written an original engaging story that really doesn’t do much but illustrate how a happy couple is happy—I was riveted to his prose, his characterization, his little choices, this great story the whole time.

I could have written about any number of Charles Baxter’s books or stories, as I really haven’t read a whole lot of him before, only his early collection Through the Safety Net and his most well known book, the best-selling novel The Feast of Love. I’m glad I chose his newest book, just over a year old, to see what he’s been up to lately. He’s fine, of course, churning out great fiction, which is what Charles Baxter does.