Saturday, April 18, 2015

Short Story Saturday: Charles Baxter's "Charity"

Charles Baxter
Charles Baxter's short story "Charity" made its first appearance in 2013 as part of Issue number 43 of McSweeney's.  It is also the very first story in The Best American Short Stories of 2014, the wonderful collection edited by Jennifer Egan that I enjoy dipping in and out of so much. 

"Charity" is about Matty Quinn, a man who goes to Africa with only one goal in mind.  He is not there to exploit the situation so that he can come home a richer man.  On the contrary, he is there simply to make a difference in the lives of a few people via the little health clinic that employs him.  Matty Quinn is a kind soul, and as observed one day by Harry Albert, he does the little things that really do make a difference.  Matty is so kind, so empathetic, in fact, that Harry falls in love with him before they speak a single word to each other.

Matty Quinn, though, is an example of the old cliché that "no good deed goes unpunished" because soon after he returns to the U.S. doctors tell him that the fatigue and pain he suffers are due to a viral rheumatism infection that he acquired in Africa.  Their remedy?  Painkillers and time.  But before he knows it, doctors have cut Matty off from the very painkillers that make his life even remotely bearable - forcing him to spend his remaining savings to acquire the same drugs illegally on the streets of Minneapolis.  Finally, Matty does what is to him the unthinkable; he resorts to mugging people to get enough cash to make it through another day.  And kind soul that he is, the guilt drives him nuts. 

"Charity" is told in two distinct voices.  The first part of the story is a third person recounting of Matty's story: who he is, how he met Harry, why he was in Africa, and what happened to him when he came home.  The second part of the story suddenly switches into the first person voice of Harry himself, and in a final twist of voices, Harry reveals that he is also the author of the third person account that makes up the earlier part of "Charity."  This second section delves deeper into the relationship of the two men and brings the story to its somber, but satisfying, conclusion. 

Interestingly, in the "Contributors Notes" section of The Best American Short Stories of 2014, Baxter reveals that "Charity" is just one of several stories he had been writing at the time about "virtues and vices."  He had, in fact, been struggling with a plot for the story he wanted to call "Charity" when he remembered a character from the one he called "Chastity."  In that story, a young man is severely injured during a mugging when someone comes up behind him and strikes him with a pipe.  The mugger was never identified.  Baxter says he began wondering who could have done such a thing - and why.  Could the mugger actually have been a good man caught up in a situation so desperate that it drove him to do something completely out of character?  Thus, was born the plot of "Charity," and the rest is history.

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