(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

To function in this world, people must believe in something. Believing gives people strength, their life purpose, their relationships harmony. Yet how does someone know what secrets exist in the heart of that person to whom they have given their affections, their trust? How can anyone know all that can be known about another person? In Charles Baxter’s collection of stories the answers to these questions are seldom answered; individuals make sense out of their lives and their relationships by believing or by not believing. Love between people is based upon believing each other’s stories, just as love for God is based upon believing the stories that inform a particular religion. Baxter’s collection explores the dimensions of belief in human relationships and portrays the variety of ways people are renewed by their beliefs, betrayed by their beliefs, or broken by their beliefs. These stories reveal the consequences of believing as it affects individual identity, love, faith, and moral judgment.

Baxter is interested in the way belief sometimes makes people become blind followers. In this sense love and fascism are curiously entwined in his stories. People in love are believers. They are followers, people who place their will and their trust in others—sometimes in spite of evidence to the contrary—who make a deity out of love and intimacy, who view love as an infection or “virus” they are powerless to resist, who believe their lives will be changed by the person they love. This blind allegiance to a person is analogous to the unwavering devotion to a fascist regime. The example of Nazi Germany is at the farthest extreme of the negative consequences of this theme and is a crucial setting for the last story in the collection, “Believers: A Novella.”

One of Baxter’s gifts as a writer is his ability to capture intimate moments between two people that reveal the depths of human longing and affection as well as the attendant fears of insecurity and separation. In “Saul and Patsy Are in Labor,” a wife helps her husband face a threat of violence toward their family. Suddenly, she notices her husband’s gentle demeanor toward their small child and realizes how much she loves him. An adult son and his aging mother share an awkward conversation in “Believers: A Novella” about the wellsprings of her intimacy toward her future husband, who was at that time a Roman Catholic priest. In “Kiss Away,” Baxter portrays a woman’s careful observations of the young man who will become her lover. A wife in “Flood Stories” tries to defuse her husband’s increasing obsession with his first wife by revealing secrets shared between the two women. In “The Cures for Love,” a chance encounter at an airport between two women leads to an embarrassing dilemma when one of them fails to recognize the other person.

Baxter’s stories also reveal the intimacies that sometimes lie hidden in the midst of human interaction. “Reincarnation” captures the nuances of a dinner-table conversation among three couples. Individuals take turns making numerous inconsequential observations about the subject of life after death. One of the party, a gay man who has sat quietly for most of the evening next to his partner of six years, finally shocks the others with an angry and desperate outburst. He complains that their conversation has been artificial and insensitive. Everyone assumes he or she will have unlimited tomorrows to explore other grand topics. Yet some people face pain and loss in the here and now. He mentions a recent visit to the doctor. Is the character HIV-positive? Could he have contracted the virus from his lover? If not, will his partner be fearful that he will contract the virus in the future? Baxter does not address these details; the story ends abruptly. Yet the essence of the story is revealed in the couple’s response to what could be the dreaded specter of AIDS: the speaker in tears, and his partner comforting him with a gentle caress. Their mutual support and strong emotional bond stand against the cynicism of the earlier conversation.

In many of these stories emotional and psychological violence loom before the characters like a nightmare vision. The young woman in “Kiss Away” learns that her new lover may have battered his former lover. One of the dinner guests in “Reincarnation” tells the story of a man who befriends the husband of his lover and then finds himself confronted by that man when the two are alone in a boat in the middle of a lake. In both cases readers do not find out what happened between these potential antagonists. The meaning of violence resides not in the certainty of “knowing” what happens but in the brutal ambiguity of trying to discern what one “believes” will happen.

The lives of characters caught in this mesh of uncertainty and ambiguity are changed by their encounters with violence. One day Harry Edmonds, the main character in...

(The entire section is 2020 words.)