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Between Light and Shadows

BELIEVERS. By Charles Baxter . Pantheon: 288 pp., $23

March 30, 1997|FREDERICK BUSCH | Frederick Busch is the author, among other books, of "Girls." He is the Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University

Charles Baxter, known for the wisdom in his fiction and the feelings evoked by his prose, may be thought of as an artist only of the spirit, responding, say, to the season, to a perceived mood, to the smell of the river or the light in the sky. But this collection of seven stories and a novella will remind us that he is an exemplary writer because he works in persuasive solidities, in what is actual, in what, when dropped into water, displaces it up and into the air.

So, of his protagonist Kit in the story "The Cure for Love," Baxter writes: "Because spring had hit Chicago, and sunlight had given this particular Saturday morning a light fever, and because her black mood was making her soul sore, she decided to get on the Chicago Transit Authority bus and read Ovid while she rode to the suburbs and back."

A morning with "a light fever" caused by sunlight? A woman whose soul is "sore" because of her black mood?

You aren't certain, but you think Baxter's right. You've known mornings when sun along the sidewalk or up the trunk of a tree has made you blue, and aren't the blues what you have on a morning with a light fever? So you read along, but it's not that simple. You cannot not read along with Baxter. And then he has you, for he is a master of what's actual and he shows you "a smudgy semi-clean window" on the bus, the "tattered jackets and gummy spotted clothes" of passengers, the "hollow and stoned and vacant-eyed" people who sit around Kit, "men who worked in carwashes, women who worked in diners."

As in the beginning of another story, "Reincarnation," where he writes, "the last of the light flowed through the west windows over the radiators, and over the boards on the radiators, and the house plants on the boards"--he creates his imagery from stuff, the things of the world, actual-seeming objects, which fiction writers note and from which they build moments and people.

Baxter understands how (in "The Cure for Love") a woman may conduct a dialogue with Ovid and find Lake Michigan "abjectly picturesque," but he is never content to reside in the abstract. His characters are creatures of the solid world, and Kit, riven by love and by loss, standing stunned on the street in Chicago, her wild bus ride done, nevertheless cannot help noting a mad old woman with only one lens in her glasses and the reflection in that lens of an orange neon light.

Baxter is a student of light (among his novels: "First Light" and "Shadow Play"), and he makes lovely language of it. In "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor," a newborn baby's expression, along with a nurse's smile, "sunspot" near the mother's heart; "the huge overhead delivery room light goes out, like a sigh." He creates the language: the noun "sunspot" becomes a verb, while a visual image, the light on the ceiling, goes out in audile terms. We know that breezes make a sail flap or luff, but it is Baxter who sees how light, through curtains, comes "luffing in the window." The language he makes is not precious or academic. It is right. Only the great chefs know how to combine, as Baxter combines the effects of the senses, the sweet with the sour, the fierce with the cool, the visual with the auditory.

And he is a student of opposing elements. In story after story, we find the world of the characters divided. These are contemplative, self-studying characters who look up to find themselves caught in a moment that they know, if they can seize it, will define them. And they work hard to capture themselves. In "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb," one character says that he works in a bank and he knows that "if you're harmless you get killed and eaten." Another character replies, "That's back in the country of acting out," and the terms of division are declared. "The Cure for Love" divides Kit's world into the life of those who are at home as opposed to the life of those who are in exile. In "Time Exposure," Irene sees a world of apocalyptic bedlam set to rest by the birth of her children: "All that prized calamity was just another story." In the novella, "Believers," the narrator says of his father, a former priest, that God left him. "And my father was given this world, the one we live in, for all the good it would do him." Every world in this book is divided, as the thoughtful characters are divided against themselves.

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