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Under the Safety Net : by Charles Baxter (Viking: $14.95; 213 pp.)

August 11, 1985|Richard Eder

The last story in this collection, "A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron," records moment by moment the activities of a dozen picnickers spending the day in a Michigan community park.

A family eats and minds its children. A few young men, just out of school and starting factory jobs, drink beer and horse around. A couple make love behind the trees. Everything is meticulously normal and made oppressive by the unsparing detail of the narrative. It is lab notes of an experiment to drain the oxygen out of a human setting.

Charles Baxter finds in his characters nothing but the clay of which they're made. In Genesis, God blew on the clay. For Baxter, modern life sucks that breath away. "What a relief it is, sometimes, not to have to tell a story about these people," he writes in one of his picnic lab notes.

We sense his refusal all through "Late Sunday," and it quite takes our attention away from its inert characters. It is like hearing someone tell a story in a heavy stammer, and suddenly realizing, while trying to hear beyond the stammer, that it is not natural but deliberate.

Baxter, like a number of other contemporary short-story writers, writes about the anomie of our life. Listlessness pervades the world. Raymond Carver, at his best, transcends such listlessness by the energy of his art; Frederick Barthelme, by the skillful and insidious starvation of his narrative.

Even when presented most artfully, listlessness is a fragile subject. It is something like working a nearly worked-out mine. Baxter's solution--except in the last story, where he resigns--is to insert a touch of melodrama, of extremity into his plots and emotions. The author gives his receding characters an extra kick downhill.

In "Cataracts," a retired businessman takes up his youthful passion for painting, only to discover illness and isolation in the bucolic farm scene he chooses. In "Under the Safety Net," a suburban clairvoyant, used by his clients mainly as an investment counselor, predicts the end of the world. The story's last paragraph implies that it is, in fact, about to take place.

In "Surprised by Joy," a couple are devastated by the death of their 3-year-old daughter, graphically and pitifully recounted. The wife gradually heals; the husband clings to mourning, and their divergence is like a second death. In "Media," a college graduate who finds nothing to do that interests him, decides to become a celebrity by walking through a plate-glass window.

The best of the stories is "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan." A young couple from Chicago move to a small Michigan town to get away from the urban rat race; and he becomes a teacher in the local high school. The story is a delicate and ferocious tale of estrangement. Hemmed in by the prairie distances, they huddle together playing a lot of Scrabble and making a lot of love just to keep out the cold.

They tell themselves that they like peace and quiet and the "indifference" of neighbors who are friendly enough, but lack the urban compulsion for intimacy. But things gnaw at them. The husband, who is Jewish, construes all kinds of suspicions out of his barber's remark that his hair is kinky; and out of a glaring neighbor, who turns out to have Alzheimer's disease. Finally, monotony languishes them; driving home from a party, he falls asleep at the wheel. There is a shivering sense of menace and despair throughout the story, and Baxter's description of the prairie car wreck is masterful:

"The two red taillights of the car went around a corner that wasn't there; then one of them moved up directly above the other. Then it came down again, on the wrong side, and began blinking."

There is terror here; and once in a while, in the other stories, there is a similar flash of emotion rendered with a chill precision that makes it memorable. Mostly, though, Baxter doesn't go beyond establishing the smog in which his characters move, and he uses a kind of white light upon it that, instead of penetrating it, magnifies it.

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