Thirty Days of Stories: Day Three

Title: Surprised by Joy

Author: Charles Baxter

Appears in: Through the Safety Net [1985]; Gryphon: New and Selected Stories [2011]

Premise: A couple take a trip to New Mexico in an attempt to overcome their grief after the accidental death of their three year old child.

Thoughts: If we were interested in opinion for these purposes, I would argue that this was a strange story to get through. Most of Baxter’s stories are strange and difficult for me to get through, due to their Michigan settings echoing the drab mundanity of 1980s Amherstburg, Ontario.  This story never really fired off for me until the closing moments, which is likely by design; Baxter’s too masterful a stylist for it not to be.  We see the couple, Jeremy and Harriet [I find the name selection troubling, I associate it with elderly women, not the mothers of toddlers] in their grey moments of grief, the effort it takes to survive one hour to the next, the moment it becomes clear they need additional help, and the moment Harriet, to Jeremy’s sadness, puts her grief aside to see the beauty around her. Baxter keeps the tone of the story cold for the first half, mirroring the mental state of his characters. Even the use of a chapter break between the Michigan scenes and the New Mexico scenes denote the shift that will be occurring, up to the heartbreaking moment it becomes clear to Jeremy his wife has left him alone with his despair. Like Lipsyte, Baxter sprinkles the character details throughout to keep the Michigan moments from feeling like a total slog [Jeremy’s ‘Jazz from Mars,’ the conflict with the Jehovah’s Witnesses], and gives a cathartic emotional payoff by the story’s conclusion, surprising the reader with joy as much as his characters.

Lesson: Pacing is like fishing; know when to give some line, and know when to reel it in.

Favourite Line: “I don’t want to be all right!” he said, his voice rising, a horrible smile appearing on his face: it was a devil’s face, Harriet saw, and it was radiant and calm. Swear poured off his forehead, and his skin had started to flush pink. “It’s my pleasure not to be all right. Do you see that? My pleasure.”

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