In "The Apartment," Greg Baxter's assured debut novel from 2013, an unnamed American male wanders the snowy streets of an unnamed European capital in search of a place to live. Very little happens. What keeps us reading, though, are the narrator's meandering deviations — not on foot, but in his head. Observations trigger memories and sensory experiences, which, in turn, unleash mesmerizing disquisitions on diverse topics.
Baxter's second novel, "Munich Airport," reprises the anonymous American abroad conceit while openly declaring its bearings. The narrator — an American working as a marketing consultant in London — finds himself summoned to Germany after his sister, Miriam, is discovered dead in her Berlin apartment. Weeks later he is holed up in a fogbound Munich Airport with his father, a retired professor of European history, and Trish, an American consular official, waiting for the weather to clear and for Miriam's coffin to be loaded onboard their plane to Atlanta.
As before, Baxter serves up a novel with a decidedly thin framework (one hesitates to call it a plot). But once again the elaborate strands he weaves around it provide ample support and substance. The narrator's "actions" in the airport — people-watching, drinking with an old acquaintance, tending to his sick father — all prove incidental to his steady stream of flashbacks. We see him in Berlin (the place Texan-born Baxter calls home) trying to comprehend Miriam's appalling death and dealing with her grasping ex-boyfriend; we are taken back further to the narrator's wrecked marriage and rehabilitation in London, and to family vacations on a Scottish island. There is also the road trip he makes with his father through Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg while waiting for Miriam's body to be released.
Scattered throughout all of this are searching meditations on love, loss, classical music, medieval history and the vitality and precariousness of human connection. Some are the man's personal views; some stem from his compulsive jottings — "five hundred notebooks full of notes." As he talks and reflects, his grief ebbs and flows, periodically imbuing speech and recollections. After hearing the news of his sister's death he gives a presentation and dines with top clients, but his confidence is rocked by "brief paroxysms of devastation and anxiety." In the airport he surveys the departure board, dreams up a conversation with Miriam about visiting each destination and finds "the territory of my disappointment grows, like the outer boundaries of an empire on a map."
So convincing is Baxter's atmosphere of disquiet that the reader ends up affected by it: first sharing the narrator's queasiness and later disturbed by his numbness and gradual unraveling. The novel's tone, together with Baxter's limpid prose and his narrator's clear-eyed confessions, keep us riveted until the bittersweet climax, when the fog finally lifts and each broken character can take to the sky.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.