MINNEAPOLIS — A couple of years ago, over dinner, Charles Baxter told his friend Louise Erdrich about a book he was reading on the 1918 flu epidemic. One passage described a folkloric cure that involved placing a mirror into flowing water and then washing the reflected face.
“And I told Louise about that, and she said, ‘Well, if you don’t use that, I’m going to,’” Baxter recalled.
He didn’t give her the chance — the mirror cure now appears in Baxter’s new novel, “The Sun Collective,” in one of the strangest and most magical scenes in a novel filled with strangeness and magic.
The novel — his sixth — is set in Minneapolis, where Baxter lives and where he taught for 18 years in the University of Minnesota’s MFA program in creative writing. The nationally renowned writer and teacher retired quietly in May.
IN TOUCH WITH THE ZEITGEIST
“The Sun Collective” opens and closes on the light rail and it winds, just as the Blue Line does, through Minneapolis neighborhoods. The story follows a retired engineer named Brettigan, who is not very different from Baxter himself: smart, thoughtful, empathetic, nearly overwhelmed by the social problems of his city and country. The book is populated with hippies and charlatans and homeless people and people who start out earnestly hoping to do good but who end up doing harm.
In the novel, the gap between rich and poor is growing wider, homelessness is on the rise, and the country has elected a president who brags and berates and treats his job like a game show. Baxter started writing the novel about a year before Donald Trump was elected president, but he could see what was coming.
“You didn’t have to be a prophet to notice that he was getting crowds and that a lot of people both on the left and the right — more on the right, I think — were unhappy,” Baxter said.
That kind of noticing, he says, is a writer’s job.
“I think fiction writers try to tell what it’s like — what it feels like to be alive at any particular point,” he said. “And I guess I was just starting to feel this upsurge of rage years ago when I started this book.”
There are elements of magic throughout the novel — not just in the mirror scene, but in a surreal drive through a blizzard, and scenes where dogs and cats speak. (The dogs, as you might imagine, are kinder and more empathetic than the cats.)
“This novel, especially, is very close to the dream world,” Baxter said. “It’s running a low-grade fever. The feeling is more that of realism that sometimes bleeds into a slightly hallucinatory moment.”
In addition to his six novels, Baxter, 73, is the author of six collections of short stories, three collections of poetry (though he only likes one of them) and two books of essays, both published by Graywolf Press of Minneapolis. He also edited Graywolf’s “The Art of ...” series of books on the craft of writing.
His work has been honored over the years with awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s won the Minnesota Book Award twice, has been included in the Pushcart Prize anthology 12 times and in “Best American Short Stories” eight times.
His novel “The Feast of Love” was a finalist for the National Book Award and was made into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander.
“He is a deeply creative, attentive, generous and open-minded reader,” said Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher, who is editing Baxter’s next essay collection, “Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature,” to be published in 2022.
“His craft talks and essays weave in personal material in such a way as to teach you something new about the nature of writing and reduce you to tears at the same time. Quite the combination!”