What Can We Steal From Charles Baxter’s “Charity”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Charity,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 43 of McSweeney’s. Heidi Pitlor and Jennifer Egan chose to include the work in Best American Short Stories 2014.
Bonuses: Karen Carlson always has some interesting thoughts to share, this time about Mr. Baxter’s story. Here is a Midwestern Gothic interview in which Mr. Baxter discusses his connection to the region. Want to see what Mr. Baxter said about his work at St. Francis College?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
When Matty and Harry met, they were Americans living in Africa, doing what they could to help sick people. Harry loved that Matty/Quinn was filled with kindness for the people around him and wasn’t helping out in hopes of making a profit. As the Bard might say, the course of true love never did run smooth. Though they remain boyfriend and boyfriend after returning to the States, Matty ends up living in a friend’s basement, addicted to the painkillers that are his only relief from the pain caused by a sickness even the Mayo Clinic can’t identify. The story is split into two sections; the first describes the dire straits in which Matty finds himself and the second is a first-person account of Harry’s trip to Minneapolis to find and help his boyfriend.
Mr. Baxter tricked me! Ever since grad school, I’ve been in the habit of jotting down the story’s point of view and the names of the important characters. Doing so helps me remember the story the next time it’s brought up and addresses one of my blind spots: I’m REALLY bad at remembering character names. So I started reading “Charity:”
He had fallen into bad trouble. He had worked in Ethiopia for a year…
So I uncapped my fountain pen and wrote: 3RD and eventually QUINN. All was well and good until I reached the next section:
That was as far as I got whenever I tried to compose an account of what happened to Matty Quinn–my boyfriend, my soulmate, my future life…
Uh oh. That’s first person. What’s going on? Well, Mr. Baxter has made a fantastic choice: that’s what’s going on. Even though Harry most certainly asked Matty about what happened in Minneapolis, he was not there for every moment. The story therefore benefits from casting the first section in third person. The narrator (Harry, in this case) is able to immerse the reader in the story much more deeply than if he had to tell the tale from a distance. Further, the first section really does belong to Matty; he’s the protagonist in the events, he’s the focal character…so the story SHOULD be told from his perspective. The second section, on the other hand, is very much Harry’s story. He’s the one who meets up with Black Bird and who does what he can to bring Matty back to life.
If you’re lucky enough to have the Best American volume, you can read the end notes that accompany each story. Mr. Baxter reveals the most fascinating piece of information regarding the genesis of “Charity:”
…I had just written a story called “Chastity,” in which my protagonist, Benny Takemitsu, gets mugged, and I thought, “I wonder who did that?” Whoever did it had to be desperate. Whoever it was, I thought, might be a good soul in the grip of something truly terrible. So I wrote it that way.
Isn’t that cool? Mr. Baxter’s choice offers a couple powerful advantages:
It’s really hard to come up with story ideas, isn’t it? Cherry-picking an event from another of your works can be the inspiration that gets you going on a new story. If you look at any of your stories, you’ll surely see all kinds of avenues ripe for exploration. Hmm…here’s what I’m thinking I could poach from my story, “Something Like a Sin:”
- Who are some of the other people who attend Transformation Baptist? What are they like?
- What else could happen in The Raven, the bar the protagonist frequents?
- What is Pastor Hocking’s family like? When has he failed to live up to his own standards?
- What happened with all of the other women the protagonist mentions?
- Who is in the house when Melody closes the door behind her?
See? If I’m dry for inspiration, looking to my past work can give me a jumpstart.
Mr. Baxter also gains something very important by reusing Benny Takemitsu’s mugging: he’s creating a discernible world. Isn’t it comforting to know that all of the Marvel characters know each other and can sometimes team up, for good or evil? Tying these two stories together makes Mr. Baxter’s Minneapolis seem more like a real place. Creating the mythology is also a good idea in light of the fact that Mr. Baxter is publishing a collection of stories about “virtues and vices:” Chastity, Charity, Refraining From Watching the Next Breaking Bad Episode on Netflix Before Your Spouse Does, and so on. A shared world only strengthens the conceit of the book.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell your story from the most appropriate and interesting point of view. Sure, you may have to break your story into sections and change POV, but that’s okay if it’s done in the service of the story.
- Borrow characters and situations from your other works. Even if it’s just a cameo from another character’s friend, people who read your work will find greater depth in the world you create.