Believers: A Novella and Stories

Charles Baxter, Author Pantheon Books $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-679-44267-7

Baxter's (Shadow Play) sixth work of fiction is something of an incongruity: seven virtuosic stories preceding a novella largely bereft of the stories' shared merits. Ambitious and accomplished, the shorter works here tackle slippery themes and subjects-fleeting moments of truth; the ambiguities of daily life and the defenses through which ordinary men and women attempt to clarify them. In ""Kiss Away,"" for example, a young woman wonders if she should believe a stranger's announcement that her lover has a history of battering women, or if the stranger is no more reliable than the alcoholic who promised to grant her three wishes (which, incidentally, come true). Here as elsewhere, Baxter unrolls his canvas slowly and deliberately, convincing the reader of his characters' vitality and patterning their responses delicately and with pathos. In the title novella, however, the suppleness of the author's observations coarsens into heavy ironies and almost melodramatic revelations. Narrated with deliberate (and often painful) artlessness by the protagonist's son, ""Believers"" pits a good country priest against a wealthy and corrupt couple who might be outcasts from a Fitzgerald novel. It is 1938, and they lure him from Michigan to travel with them to Germany, where the wife briefly and admiringly encounters Goebbels and the priest loses his faith (the wife ""throw[s] rocks through the glass of his soul""). Fortunately, the novella comes last: newcomers will have seen what Baxter's reputation is built upon, and admirers will not mind that his gambles do not always pay. (Mar.)
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