Reading Charles Baxter’s “What Happens in Hell,” I find myself continually impressed by each sentence’s ability to do two things at once. This is no surprise given Baxter’s body of work and capabilities as a writer—it’s a given that the writing’s working in more ways than one—yet what stands out to me is that Baxter’s sentences work in both ways I notice and ways I do not. I imagine it’s like when I turn on the hot water for a shower in my house and my roommate’s shower in the casita out back turns cold: I know I do the one thing, but I don’t instinctively recognize that the one thing leads to the other.
Needless to say, as a fiction writer and an essayist, Baxter does another two things at once. What happens when we read a fiction writer in the guise of an essayist for the first time and vice versa? What differentiates the narrative of a particular writer’s essay from the narrative of a particular writer’s short story? If I had been reading the red cover of this year’s Best American series instead of the green cover, would I have questioned whether I was reading a story or not? The overall movement of Baxter’s essay is towards the artfully staggered narrative I find so often in his fiction: we begin with Baxter the narrator and his town car driver, a Pakistani American named Niazi, conversing over what happens in hell while driving through Palo Alto (Baxter is on his way to Stanford to teach a class as a visiting writer); this incident triggers a bout of schadenfreude and the revelation of the deeper sadness present in Baxter’s life (his loneliness, his recent separation from his wife); armed with this, we return several weeks later to another car ride with Baxter and Niazi, a ride that leads to an nearly fatal crash, the narrative’s dramatic climax and the moment when the conversation about what happens in hell merges with something closer to reality; from here, the drama lessens and we move towards conclusion and Baxter’s attempt to forgive Niazi.
Given the decisive turn it takes in its middle, Baxter’s essay deserves the sort of praise we reserve for the type of workshop friendly short stories and essays (JoAnn Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” comes most readily to mind) that tell us everything we need to know in their first page without giving away the plot or element of surprise. Baxter’s sentences apply to both the present moment and the moment to come; they are tinged with a humor that both masks and welcomes. When Niazi tells Baxter that “there is no forgiveness over there. There is forgiveness over here but not there,” we take it as evidence of a slightly loony if not fundamentalist character without expressly realizing that this sentiment will play out to be true, that Baxter himself will be unable to forgive Niazi after he falls asleep at the wheel and drives into a hellish car wreck. When after one of Niazi’s pronouncements, Baxter decides “to drink some more of his bottled water,” we’re aware of the irony and complicity of this action—water amidst a discussion of fire and Hell, privilege swigged in the face of the unprivileged—but cannot recognize its full poignancy until the car is flipping over on its way down the hill and, as Niazi screams, Baxter watches the bottle of water floating in front of him.
The ability to wrangle this much out of a sentence isn’t so much a product of the genre Baxter’s working in as it is a result of careful, considered writing. The qualities of the above examples—the telling detail, the foreshadowing line of dialogue, the true subject masked by the triggering subject—are as likely to occur in a Charles Baxter short story as a Charles Baxter essay. They’re a staple. Yet what of the sentences that provide something specifically because they are present in something termed an essay and not a short story? Do such sentences exist? What of those moments that find traction here because Baxter is ostensibly essaying (or aware that he’s essaying and thus allowed whatever artificial constructs and constraints we allow the essayist) and not short-storying? Is this at all a valid distinction to make, much less to try and elucidate? I’m not so much speaking about Baxter’s liberty to pull quotes or include anecdotes from Alice Munro or Nietzsche (what we might think of as privileged to the essayist), but his ability to close or widen the gap he inhabits as an author, to near or pull away from the subject and moment at hand—in other words, to turn on the heat in one place to create cold in another.
I’m reluctant to use these terms essaying and short-storying. How do I really know what these mean? I tell myself that Baxter’s allowed to do one thing because I’ve flipped open this year’s Best American Essays but not another because I’ve flipped open Best American Short Stories (I guess, along with Alice Munro, he’s going for something of an EGOT here). I think back to TaraShea Nesbit’s post from the previous week and what smart sense she makes when she writes “I don’t mind calling essays stories, or calling stories essays. There is a reason why we make this slip: essays have an arc, stories have embedded questions.” Presumably, Baxter should just be allowed to do Baxter. Yet still I look for ways that a Baxter essay differentiates itself from a Baxter short story, still I think how clever it would be of an essay to disguise itself as a short story until it comes time to reveal its intent.
Consider, for example, how Baxter narrates two car crashes. One is from the short story “Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” collected in Through The Safety Net and the other is from “What Happens in Hell.” In “Saul and Patsy…”, the crash comes at the story’s end. Saul and Patsy are driving back from a party, drunk and late at night, their car alone on State Highway 14 in rural Michigan. The narration begins within Saul’s dreams and then shoots out: “He did not even realize he was shutting his eyes. He was dreaming of Patsy, sleeping within arms’ reach. Patsy, whom he loved all the way down to the root. Then he was dreaming of Mrs. O’Neill, carrying a gigantic plate of chocolate chip cookies. And Bart Connell and the barber, asleep on their feet. The two red taillights of the car went around a corner that wasn’t there; then one of them moved up directly above the other. Then it came down again hard, on the wrong side, and began blinking.”
This moment comes down upon us as a dual surprise: the car has crashed, leaving the fates of Saul and Patsy up in the air, yet the narrative distance has also zoomed out. We end with the stark and gentle image of the two out-of-place taillights, an acknowledgment of devastation yet a refusal to rubberneck. The drama in this scene comes from both its events—the hinted at yet unexpected car crash, the unknown consequences—and its shift in detail, its ability to separate itself from its subject and leave its reader with an image—those blinking taillights—impossible to shake from one’s mind.
Compare this to Baxter’s narration of his own crash in “What Happens in Hell”: “California drivers aren’t used to precipitation, so when the car began to lose control, Niazi woke up and slammed on the brakes, throwing the Lincoln into a sideways skid…From the moment the car began to lose control until it came to rest, Niazi was screaming. All during the time we turned over down that hill, he continued to scream. Reader, this essay is about that scream. Please do your best to imagine it.”
Please do your best to imagine it! If “Saul and Patsy’s” narration refocuses distance, here the narration refocuses address, if not the essay’s intended meaning. Tone subverts content and environment. We are in a constrained, intimate space—our narrator is literally inside the overturning car, we have reached our utmost physical proximity—yet the event is not only narrated with lucidity and detachment, but with the essayist’s love of relaying knowledge (“California drivers aren’t used to precipitation…”) and penchant for conversational address, an address that runs throughout the essay but is never as overt as it is here with its “Dear Reader.” The drama and surprise in this scene don’t have to do so much with the severity of the car accident (while that’s certainly there, the narrative tension is lessened since we at least know our protagonist’s well enough to be writing about it), as they do with the responsibility that Baxter places into his reader’s hands. He asks us not just to recreate a moment outside the realm of personal experience (i.e. a moment we’d have to imagine and/or fictionalize), but a moment upon which the essay’s characterizations and the ideas presented by those characters hinge. The moment where what the characters do to one another (Niazi asks Baxter to imagine what happens in hell, that is to imagine the unimaginable) becomes what the essayist does to the reader. That, I would argue is the true drama of this essay—a sentence’s ability to turn an essay’s direction, to step back and demand speculation, to take us out of one situation and insert us in another, a new reality we must confront in order to make our way through, as if it really had been us in the car all along. And there, I guess, is the rub. I write the above to applaud the power a sentence contains, a power I’ve decided as unique to the essay, but I don’t realize I’ve done two things at once (I am no Baxter), that the sentiment described—this new reality we must confront to take us out of one situation and insert us into another—reads on second glance like a power of fiction.
Tommy Mira y Lopez is pursuing his MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His work appears or will appear in PANK, Green Briar Review, Seneca Review, and CutBank. He's the nonfiction editor of Sonora Review and an assistant editor at Fairy Tale Review.