There's Something I Want You to Do
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon Books. 221 pp. $24.00
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There's Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter, consists of 10 stories divided into two sections. The first consists of stories named after virtues - "Bravery," "Loyalty," "Chastity," "Charity," and "Forbearance." Not surprisingly, the second section is composed of stories named after vices - "Lust," "Sloth," "Avarice," "Gluttony," and "Vanity."
Such a list might suggest a series of heavy-handed and thinly masked morality tales, but Baxter, for the most part, merely uses these noble and ignoble qualities as gentle nudges of our attention in the direction of a relevant, but not necessarily dominant, aspect of a particular character's nature.
The theme of virtues and vices is not all that ties these stories together. Characters appear and reappear, which imparts a slightly novelistic feel to the collection. Dr. Elijah Jones, of the first story, "Bravery," is the young protagonist's husband and later is the protagonist of two of his own stories. Such overlaps and revisitations provide additional depth and richness to our understanding of these stories' already well-drawn and well-developed characters and relationships.
Since nearly every story is tethered in some way to at least one other story in the collection, those that stand alone tend to seem less fully realized. By themselves they are just as satisfying as the others, but our impression of the stories as a whole suffers from this only partial interconnectedness.
In the end, what will resonate most with readers is Baxter's compassionate portraits of his mentally, physically, and emotionally damaged characters. Many seek help from others, often in the words of the book's title. Sometimes they get help, sometimes not.
Still, their interdependence - and, by extension, our own - is stressed throughout. The character who seems best to understand this is Wes, from "Loyalty," who takes in his mentally ill ex-wife, forgiving her for having left him years before to raise their young son alone. "I have to let her remain here if she wants to," he says to us. "She's wreckage. It's as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins. What happened to her could've happened to me or to anybody." Few writers, if any, are as capable of pursuing such an inevitable truth as this - and in so graceful, subdued, and artful a manner - as Charles Baxter.