In Believers: A Novella and Stories,
Charles Baxter examines the power of belief to transform people’s lives. Whether it is belief of a religious nature, or simply the belief one partner has in another that allows a romantic relationship to blossom, Baxter demonstrates how belief, or lack thereof, has a profound influence over the way people live their lives.
Baxter examines how belief can make people blind, such as in instances of love and fascism. Through his extensive character studies, Baxter reveals the ways in which love requires believing fully in something outside of oneself, over which we have no control. It demands a kind of blind allegiance to another person in a way that defies all logic. In this way, love and fascism are alike, both demanding an unwavering and unquestioning devotion, even when there is evidence to suggest that one’s beliefs are unfounded.
As a writer, Baxter has a keen eye for the complexities of human behavior, expertly rendering incidences of intimate interaction that reveal deep truths about the human condition. In “Reincarnation,” three couples sit around a dinner table engaged in conversation. At first, the thoughts expressed by each person seem vague and ill-thought-out, but soon the conversation turns to the topic of life after death. After much chitchat, one of the men at the table has a sudden angry outburst, shocking the other dinner guests. Incensed by the direction the conversation has taken, he accuses the others of being fake and insensitive in their commentary. He goes on to state how silly they all are for conversing about such trivialities when there are people in the world experiencing extreme suffering. He refers to a recent visit to the doctor, suggesting that he might be seriously ill, even HIV-positive. The reader never finds out exactly what the character is alluding to, as the story comes to an abrupt end. However, what is inferred through the actions of the character and his partner, their tenderness and affection towards one another, conveys a meaning all its own.
Harry Edmonds, the main character of “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb,” finds a scrap of paper in the wind, containing a crude drawing and the titular phrase scrawled across the top. This forces him to face the fact that he is a “safe person,” an identity he resents. He wonders what it takes to become a bomber, the kind of mental strength and fortitude of will. He sees himself as weak in comparison, knowing that he is not the type of person who would ever do that, but nevertheless feeling excited by the prospect of such an act of violence. It is clear that this small scrap of paper that Harry chanced upon has changed his life forever.
Walter Gladfelter, the main character of “Time Exposure,” is a middle-aged auto mechanic. For the most part, Walter’s life is ruled by routine and predictability. However, this all changes after he overhears a man at a bar tell a story about murdering a young boy and burying his remains in a vacant lot. The man turns out to be Walter’s upstairs neighbor; Walter realizes that he is boasting about getting away with murder. He wrestles with the idea that the story is true, although his wife assures him that she saw the same thing on a TV show the previous week, and is sure that the man was just retelling the same story. Still, Walter cannot get over the fact that his neighbor crossed a line simply by telling such a story under the guise of it being fact. Revulsed by the story, Walter feels compelled to sabotage the neighbor’s car, resulting in his being involved in a bad accident. Horrified at her husband’s actions, Walter’s wife decides to pay their upstairs neighbor a visit, after which she starts to believe that this man may really have committed the crimes of which Walter suspected him.
The protagonist of “Saul and Patsy Are in Labor,” Saul, feels depressed when he feels his place in the family has been usurped by their newborn child. Saul is a teacher; two boys in his remedial English class seem dead-set on not absorbing anything that Saul is teaching. The boys are violent and dangerous, and when they follow Saul home one day, he feels a rage inside of him spurred by his instinct to protect his family. He attacks one of the boys, shaking him until his wife intervenes. In spite of the boy’s seemingly unfeeling nature, Saul’s wife insists that they have a responsibility to him, as all young people seem to be lost within a newly secularized society, lacking a direction for their beliefs.
In all of these stories, it is evident how the characters’ actions are motivated by a strong belief they hold. Whether what they believe is true or not does not seem to be of any consequence.