How strange it would be to have a grown child go missing in your own city. In Charles Baxter’s absorbing new novel, “The Sun Collective,” that heartbreaking strangeness is just one of many.
Set in Minneapolis, Baxter’s fictional world intermixes the everyday and the uncanny. A mysterious man in a trilby hat shows up on an LRT train en route to Utopia Mall and offers a “cure for afflictions” that is “proven” by a “vast literature.” Pets are telepathic. A mild-mannered retiree dreams of himself as a murderer. Rumors abound of suburban men who randomly attack homeless people at night. A young woman publicly harms herself for a cause.
How are we to react when things deemed extreme bump up against us in our rational ordinariness? We may dismiss them as hokum but, Baxter argues through his aging protagonists Harry and Alma Brettigan, it’s human to be drawn to magic, omens and dark memories. They slice the flab of the quotidian. To be fully alive, attention must be paid.
Harry and Alma, his wife of many years, have two grown children — a daughter, Virginia, who is married with kids of her own, and a son, Timothy. They know that Tim, a handsome, talented actor, is back in Minneapolis after cross-country wandering, but they have had no contact with him in several of his post-college years.
Alma has begun dropping in at different churches to look for her son. Harry, a retired structural engineer, keeps an eye out, too. “At times, Timothy seemed to be over there, on the other side of the street, ambling without destination, studying the sidewalk, distantly walking away, like an urban ghost who gave you glimpses of himself before dematerializing.”
A beautifully rendered scene at Minnehaha Park brings Harry and Alma together with Ludlow and Christina, a young couple who’ve joined the Sun Collective, which combines elements of a modern-day hippie social-justice organization and an anarchist cult. Timothy’s apparent involvement with the collective drives the story.
The novel’s politics are all over the board, perhaps reflective of the fragmented lunacy of contemporary America. The Brettigans are solidly left-liberal, with Alma endorsing the Sun Collective even while serving dinner in an apron and a sensible wool skirt. Harry, an antiwar activist in the Vietnam era, is more cynical. They dislike an authoritarian, Trump-like President Thorkelson, but with as much resignation as anger. The Sun Collective represents a more radical grassroots opposition until curdled into irrelevance by mumbo-jumboisms and a sudden, underexplained embrace of violence.
I found myself at times frustrated by storytelling paths not taken, motivations unexplored. Harry and Alma spend scant time discussing their missing son. Why do they think Timothy drifted instead of engaging? Do they blame themselves? What made Ludlow such an insolent (if addled) “professional revolutionary”? Christina’s extreme action in the name of the collective arrives somewhat out of nowhere: Is she a true believer or just zonked out on a designer drug?
Hints are dropped, but Baxter seems content not knowing all the answers, or maybe believing that motivations are no easier to fully comprehend than instances of everyday magic. His gift is to tune us into the beauty and the strangeness that walks among us, right here in river city.
Claude Peck, a former Star Tribune editor, edited the 2020 book “Doug Argue: Letters to the Future.”
The Sun Collective
By: Charles Baxter.
Publisher: Pantheon, 336 pages, $27.95.
Virtual events: Book launch, 7 p.m. Nov. 17, with Mike Alberti, Moon Palace Books online; 7 p.m. Nov. 23, Next Chapter Booksellers, online.