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The Sun Collective

Review

The Sun Collective

If there was a lifetime achievement award for unfairly underappreciated authors, Charles Baxter would be a leading candidate. Though his novel THE FEAST OF LOVE was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his beautifully crafted short stories have received their share of recognition from Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize, his writing has never achieved the acclaim it deserves. But as is clear in THE SUN COLLECTIVE, his sixth novel and first in 12 years, it takes a writer with his gifts to capture the zeitgeist with the insight, wit and grace he displays in this enchanting work.

Set in the near present in his native Minneapolis, where Baxter taught in the University of Minnesota’s MFA program for 18 years before retiring in May, THE SUN COLLECTIVE burrows deeply into the lives of five unexceptional but intriguing characters: retirees Harold (Harry) Brettigan and his wife, Alma; their son, Timothy, a former actor who has broken off contact with his parents but may live somewhere in the area; and Christina Lobdell and Ludlow Schmitz, a young couple involved with the eponymous collective, a loosely organized group of activists whose prolix and at times almost incomprehensible manifesto promotes efforts that include urban gardens, anti-consumerism and “the end of capitalism without any claim as to what will replace it.”

"There’s nothing flashy about THE SUN COLLECTIVE. Cerebral, emotional and constructed with the craftsmanship of a fine piece of handmade furniture, it’s simply a demonstration of everything that makes Charles Baxter’s work so rewarding."

Tremors of unrest rumble beneath the placid surface of the novel’s quintessentially Middle American setting. The country is led by a Trump-like president, Amos Alonzo (“Coach”) Thorkelson, who publishes a piece of doggerel each month to advance an agenda that’s anti-immigrant and hostile to the poor and who cites “too much reading as a form of trespassing compared to looking into matters and places where you don’t belong,” while proposing to tax books like cigarettes. Even the mild-mannered Alma feels herself turning into a “middle-aged nihilist.”

After meeting Christina and Ludlow at the Sun Collective --- one of the places she haunts in her search for Timothy --- and “sort of” joining the group, Alma invites the pair to the Brettigans’ for dinner, one that quickly devolves into extreme awkwardness. In front of his adoring girlfriend, who tells him, “I love it when you get all revolutionary and homicidal in polite company,” and an increasingly appalled Harry and Alma, Ludlow, who moves into Christina’s apartment fresh from a stint as a housebreaker, launches into a screed that reveals a plan for violence intended to turn the Sun Collective’s benign-sounding project into something murderous, envisioning “commando squads, guerrilla groups, sent out to the suburbs, targeting the reptile rich.”

Baxter’s portrait of the retail capitalism that provokes terrifying fever dreams like Ludlow’s and Harry’s own free-floating angst is sharply rendered. It’s embodied in the ironically named Utopia Mall --- “a casino that had somehow taken the form of a labyrinth” --- where Harry and his group of seniors, who call themselves the “Thundering Herd,” gather for their walks, and whose atmosphere generates a “disorienting spatial-temporal rupture.” The unreality of the place contrasts with the lives of the homeless people Harry encounters on Minneapolis’s light rail, and once on a post-midnight walk, men whose companions are rumored to be the targets of a deadly gang of affluent young thugs in Mercedes and Audis who call themselves the Sandmen.

Elements like these smartly coalesce to create the mood that Baxter says, in a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was trying to evoke in the novel: “This novel, especially, is very close to the dream world. It’s running a low-grade fever. The feeling is more that of realism that sometimes bleeds into a slightly hallucinatory moment.” He succeeds admirably, moving unobtrusively from scenes of benign domesticity to glimpses of dystopian violence in both suburbs and city, infusing all of it with a spectral quality that brings to mind some of the short stories of Steven Millhauser. For all the outward signs of normality, things are never quite what they seem.

Of Baxter’s core characters, the most interesting is Harry, who shares some of his sensibility with the protagonist of Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, HENRY, HIMSELF, who like Harry is a retired engineer with a bemused view of the absurdities of contemporary life. But more so than Henry Maxwell, Harry has a clear-eyed view of the source of the world’s ills, as he reflects on the people he calls the “Victims of Capitalism,” the “generously proportioned sector of the economy that had never had a single foothold on the ladder of success and who were lying on the ground anywhere they could fall unmolested.” Though he’s left his activism behind in the ’60s, his sympathies clearly lie with these underdogs.

But for all the ways it obliquely faces societal flash points, like economic inequality and generational tensions, THE SUN COLLECTIVE is also a deeply personal novel. In his typically understated style, but with the meticulous attention to detail of a laboratory scientist, Baxter dissects the intricate dance steps that partners must execute to sustain a long-term marriage (embodied throughout in the many conversations between Alma and Harry, but especially so in one poignant scene of conflict and reconciliation). His portrayal of Christina, a highly educated but rootless young woman who works as a receptionist in a suburban bank and is addicted to a designer drug called Blue Telephone, is equally sympathetic.

There’s nothing flashy about THE SUN COLLECTIVE. Cerebral, emotional and constructed with the craftsmanship of a fine piece of handmade furniture, it’s simply a demonstration of everything that makes Charles Baxter’s work so rewarding.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 20, 2020

The Sun Collective
by Charles Baxter

  • Publication Date: November 17, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 1524748854
  • ISBN-13: 9781524748852