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There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories


There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories

The epigraph that begins Charles Baxter’s new collection of stories, THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO, is a quote from Primo Levi. It says, in part, that “everyone’s moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography.” Which is another way of stating that just about everyone is a mass of contradictions, and that all of us cover the spectrum of moral qualities. Everyone is a combination of virtue and vice, and the distinction between the two is often blurrier than one might suppose.

That’s the insight that energizes this book. The first five of these 10 interrelated stories are named after virtues, the second five after vices. Characters are forced to confront moral quandaries. As in all good fiction, the choices these characters make when faced with a dilemma give the stories their richness and remind us that in fiction, as in life, important decisions are rarely easy.

"[S]o much of THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO is wise and insightful and contains such elegant prose.... warm and generous without ever degenerating into melodrama."

The protagonists in “Bravery,” for example, include pediatric resident Elijah Jones and his wife, Susan, a psychiatric social worker. In their early days together, Susan is moved by Elijah’s tenderness: He comforts a scared woman on a turbulent plane ride and, during a vacation in Prague, wants to visit chapels because they contain “hundreds of babies… Our baby is in there.” But when Susan later tells him that he doesn’t know how to feed their baby properly and complains, “I’m the mother here,” she pushes Elijah to a rash act that isn’t in keeping with a man she praised for saying he felt “undone” by her voice when she sang a solo in Vaughan Williams’ “Mass in G Minor.”

Similar contradictions appear in the other stories, almost all of them set in and around Minneapolis, where Baxter is a professor of creative writing. In “Loyalty,” a happily married mechanic named Wes has to decide what to do when his first wife, Corinne, a former nurse who has become a bag lady, shows up to see the now-adult son she abandoned years earlier. In “Chastity,” an architect named Benny Takemitsu saves a woman who appears ready to jump off the Washington Avenue Bridge --- Baxter writes that she is “very pretty in a drab sort of way, like an honorable-mention beauty queen who hadn’t taken proper care of herself” --- and then breaks up with his girlfriend when he falls in love with the woman he rescued. After Elijah and Susan’s son, Raphael, gets a young woman pregnant in “Gluttony,” the woman’s religious parents demand to speak with Elijah to find out what kind of values he’s instilling in his son.

The collection’s other conflicted characters include Matty Quinn, an altruistic sort who returns from Ethiopia with an infection and, when he needs money for drugs, hits a stranger (Benny from “Chastity”) behind the knees with a baseball bat to rob him; Amelia, a translator of poems written in Botho-Ugaric dialect who dislikes her brother for his wealth, even though he has supported her financially; and Dolores, Wes’ mother, who believes in Jesus but seriously considered murdering the woman driver who struck and killed Dolores’ husband while he was changing a tire.

The five virtue stories are stronger than the vice stories. Occasionally, the dialogue in the latter feels forced. It’s unlikely that Benny, who tries unsuccessfully to gamble away his money in “Lust,” would confide personal information to a casino greeter he has just met. But even in this lesser story, there is beautiful writing: the disheveled greeter looks “like a survivor of a plane crash dressed up to go on a talk show.” “Vanity” is a contrived story about a man who claims to have been one of Schindler’s Jews. And, on three occasions, a character speaks the book’s title. This repetition feels too much like a gimmick.

But it’s easy to forgive these missteps when so much of THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO is wise and insightful and contains such elegant prose. Wes says of Jeremy, his 17-year-old son, “He looks past me as if I were a footnote.” At his most distraught, Benny feels as if “black crows of the spirit” have been pecking away at him. Most of Baxter’s characters are compassionate, especially the men, and so is Baxter toward his creations. He pulls off a neat trick: His book is warm and generous without ever degenerating into melodrama.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 20, 2015

There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories
by Charles Baxter

  • Publication Date: February 23, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0804172730
  • ISBN-13: 9780804172738