3 short story collections: some of the best I've ever read

2. Gryphon, by Charles Baxter (Pantheon, 416 pp.)

In his fifth short story collection, Gryphon, Charles Baxter further cements his reputation as a master chronicler of the Midwest. In stories set mainly in Ann Arbor and Five Oaks, Michiganders break out in muted, unexpected ways.

In one, a teenager threatens to shoot a lion at the zoo; in the title story, an elementary-school class gets an unusual substitute teacher; in “Shelter,” a 1980s baker tries to feed the homeless, with unexpected results. “[R]eally, nothing could outdo the urban zombie affect. It was post-anxiety. It promised a kind of death you could live with,” a new mother thinks in “Ghosts.”

That zombie affect crops up throughout the collection, but Baxter also leaves room for hope and the occasional inexplicable visitation by joy. In “Poor Devil,” an ex-husband and wife perform “a ritual cleansing” of their marital home, scrubbing it for the new owners. “We failed together at the job we had been given, our marriage,” the husband says, as the poor devils revisit the scene of the crime one last time.

There are seven new stories, but most of these have been published previously, including the wonderful “Fenstad's Mother,” my hands-down favorite of the collection.

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