A man after my own heart, this Charlie Baxter.
The Minnesota native was only twenty seconds into his Friday night reading at Micawbers Bookstore when he addressed his Midwesternness, a label that is regularly affixed to his award-winning work.
“Just the other day I received an email from a reader in Los Angeles,” Baxter said, “and the man’s main question was–if you’ve published nine books, why are you still living in Minnesota?”
Why, indeed? What is there possibly to love or find interesting or important or certainly literary in our flyover state? And yet there we were, sixty or so Minneapolis-St. Paul people, shoulder-to-shoulder in a small colorful bookstore, colorful hats and scarves thrown over the backs of chairs, snow melting on our boots, gathered together to hear a writer read. It felt about as important as anything else could be.
Baxter’s newest book is Gryphon, a highly praised collection of published, anthologized, and new stories that is now on my nightstand. The book of his that I’ve just finished, though, is The Feast of Love. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000, and it’s easy to see why. A unique structure. A fresh, realized chorus of characters. Hintings toward A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some sentences that run you flat over. And of course it’s about love. It takes place in Ann Arbor, the main character works at a coffee shop, and there is much that is ordinary, quotidian, and eventual in its pages. Yet it’s about love, Everyman’s love, something that all of us–coffee maker to lawyer to book critic–crave.
That feels about as important as anything else could be, too.
Before he read from three stories in Gryphon, Baxter did address his frustration with his writing being “pigeon-holed” as Midwestern. He said he has the distinct feeling that if his stories took place in Connecticut, their ideas and themes would be considered universal. It was an interesting claim, one that I believed. But–Midwestern to the end, perhaps–he peppered the evening with no more complaints. Instead he gave us glimpses into the worlds he’s created, worlds that embrace the landscapes and people and situations he has known.
There are a lot of us here in the Midwest. I, for one, appreciate a writer who remarks on our lives from a place of understanding, with both humor and intelligence. And I, for one, am thankful Baxter isn’t moving himself or his characters out to SoCal anytime soon.