‘There’s Something I Want You to Do’ by Charles Baxter (2015) – 240 pages Grade: B
“Minnesota nice” must really exist since it has its own entry in Wikipedia. The first lines in the entry state:
“Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation It can also refer to traffic behavior, such as slowing down to allow another driver to enter a lane in front of the other person. Critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change.“
I have lived in Minnesota for 25 years, and I can honestly say “Minnesota nice” is real. But not to worry, I was born and raised not in Minnesota but in Wisconsin, so none of the above applies to me. However Charles Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the stories in his new collection “There’s Something I Want You to Do” all take place in Minneapolis.
All of the stories are named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Vanity). In ‘Loyalty’ a man who has remarried takes in his mentally ill ex-wife, because:
“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.”
This is only one example of ‘Minnesota nice’ behavior in these stories. In ‘Charity’ a man flies from Las Vegas back to Minneapolis to rescue his gay lover who is now addicted to a pain-killing drug and living outside down by the Mississippi River.
I have read a fair amount of the fiction of Charles Baxter, and I do admire his work, especially ‘The Feast of Love’ which is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Several of the stories in this collection depict the strangeness of everyday life, chance encounters, a doctor of pediatrics who communes with the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock at the Stone Arch Bridge, a woman who looks forward to dying.
If I have a complaint, it is that the people in these stories are just too nice. Without villains or at least bad people, there is little real conflict, no intensity. There is one mugging, but the mugging seems rather gentle, and the victim suffers no ugly repercussions. Even in severe illness and death, these characters seem rather mild-mannered.
Maybe next time Baxter should bring in some wild wicked evil people from other states beside Minnesota (perhaps from Wisconsin) to stir things up a little.