Charles Baxter: 'The Sun Collective'

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Author, Charles Baxter. Photo courtesy of Charles Baxter.

“The Sun Collective” is a wonderland in which what happens comes both out of the real world and a kind-of-imaginary world—the eerie realism of Charles Baxter reaches an apotheosis in his new novel. He says he embraced the task of writing about being alive in our own period of history, grounded on one hand and fantastical on the other. It is a family novel in which a quest for a missing actor-son results in his mother’s discovery of a local community group—The Sun Collective—that appeals to those with desperate needs; the collective’s vision is not of luxury but of necessity, generosity, love, anti-consumerism, and anti-algorithm.

Excerpt from “Sun Collective” by Charles Baxter.

Bracing herself, and involuntarily bunching her shoulders together, she walked forward out of the conservatory and into the snowstorm outside, following a path that led into the little zoo. Almost no one was here. She saw one maintenance worker clearing a path on the sidewalk, and, ahead of her, a tall forlorn solitary man, though certainly not Wye, wearing a stocking cap, a red scarf, and a long brown winter overcoat, approaching her. The guy was walking with his head down, his hands in his overcoat pockets, past the pri­mate cage. Another lost soul, she thought, somebody killing time by wandering through the zoo in November. Seeing Christina, he turned toward her and waved, a gesture of pure loneliness. Snow covered the lenses of his eyeglasses and was nestling in his eyebrows, though he must have seen her somehow, because, after all, he had waved at her. He coughed.

What the hell: she waved back.

Putting her hands back into her pockets, Christina plunged ahead, the snow now getting under her cap into her eyes and sticking to her eyelashes, as she walked into the Primate Building. Inside, the little monkeys, or whatever they were, were crouched in pairs grooming each other, and after studying their solicitous behavior, she walked out the other side of the building toward the western edge of the zoo where the wolves were caged.

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Their outdoor pen was about half the size of a football field. The wolves, like the snow, were white, and one of them was pacing back and forth at the edge of the opposite side near the high fencing. Each time the wolf reached the corner, it would turn and head back in the direction from which it had come. It seemed to be trying to solve a problem. The animal appeared to be thinking. What, Chris­tina wondered, was it worrying about? Maybe the problem it was trying to solve was What am I doing here? How did I get here? And how do I get out? Christina projected her thoughts into the wolf’s mind, and thoughts from the wolf came back to her. There must be an answer, the wolf believed, in wolf-thought. In wolf-world, everything had a purpose, except being in a zoo. All caged and imprisoned creatures were forced to mull over such questions.

For a moment, looking at the height of the fencing, Christina imagined herself inside the enclosure, and the wolf outside, free.

On this side of the cage, only half-visible in the storm, stood Wye. He wore a bright blue parka matted with snow, thick mittens, and a woolen cap on which snow had already accumulated. His dark glasses, the ones that he customarily wore, had a curtain of snow over them, and more snow was accumulating in his scraggly beard. He looked like a sage in disguise, a snow-bespectacled shaman. As Christina approached him, she heard him muttering instructions to the wolves.

“This is where the magic happens,” Wye said, studying the pacing wolf.

“What? What magic?” Christina asked. “I don’t see any magic.”

“You have come here,” Wye continued, still not turning around to acknowledge her—it was one of his gifts to know when people were nearby him, given his creepy extrasensitive human radar—“you have come here to ask about your boyfriend, Ludlow, and about the other one, Timothy.”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Wolves don’t like human beings, did you know that?” Wye asked. “They detest and avoid us. They can’t stand the way we smell. Our smell offends them. Even when starving, they will not come into a city. If they come near us, it is against their nature.” All at once he let out a whistle, followed by a high keening cry, an ai-ai-ai that made both wolves regard him slowly and suspiciously, as if he’d spoken the password but mispronounced it. In response, however, the two wolves ambled toward Wye and Christina, on their side of the metal fencing. On the back of each wolf was a layer of snow. Wye reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of candy, a Skittle, but instead of feeding it to the wolf, he popped it into his mouth. It was a territorial gesture.

“Wye, I think Ludlow is in some kind of trouble, and I—”

“Oh, he’s not in any trouble, Christina dear. Don’t you worry. Anyway, I wouldn’t call it ‘trouble.’ ”

“I think he’s constructing a bomb or something.” One of the wolves was still approaching the two of them, seemingly not afraid. “He won’t talk about it. I don’t know for sure, but I have this intuition. It has me worried. He talks in his sleep.”

“Did you know that the Aztec god of the sun was Huitzilopochtli?” Wye’s voice was phlegmy. “He was also the god of war, and so he did double duty. Tlaloc was the rain god. Both bloodthirsty gods required human sacrifice. It was the source of their power.” His narration grew soft and tender, at a bedtime-story level. “Thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. Those being sacrificed—well, their beating hearts were sawed out with an obsidian knife and then burned, right at the top of the Aztec pyramid. Imagine the flow of blood down the steps, the great pools of blood at the bottom! Children, too, were sacrificed, their little hearts cut right out of them. The gods require terrible, unthinkable actions from us. They give themselves that particular permission. That’s why they’re gods. Gods don’t make requests. They make demands. You know: Abraham and Isaac. The Old Testament God was like that. Implacable.”

“I wonder if there’s a god of winter.”

“Ullr,” he said. “In other mythologies, Boreas.”

“Wye,” she asked, as both wolves edged closer, “why are you telling me this? Why are we here? I’m freezing out here.”

“Because, my dear,” he said, turning his dark glasses toward her, “the gods are about to ask something terrible of you, some actions that traditionally would cause fear and trembling, but now, in the modern age . . .”

His voice trailed off, or perhaps he was still speaking, and Christina couldn’t hear his words because the snow continued to fall even harder than before, muffling his voice, and she was growing inattentive because, to her astonishment, the wolves continued to come nearer to them, as if Christina and Wye were their prey, but what was most odd about their presence before them was that their white fur had been camouflaged, subsumed, by the thick snowfall, producing a moment when, looking through the lattice-pattern fencing, all Christina could see of the wolves were their gray eyes seemingly floating in midair and fixed directly on her.

It was the strangest sight, those eyes in the midst of the snowfall, focused on her like suspended beams of light asking her a question to which she did not yet have an answer.

“What will be asked of me?” she said, still watching the animals. “What am I being called to do?”

“That would be telling,” she thought she heard Wye say, but when she turned toward him, he seemed not to be there any longer.

Excerpted from The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2020 by Charles Baxter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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