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Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter Graywolf Press, 1997, 245 pp., $22.95 Charles Baxter's first collection of essays on fiction takes its title from theTalking Heads' nonsense anthem "Burning Down the House," referring to his belief that "the house of the imagination had to be burned down in order for the contents to be revealed and its foundation made visible." These aren't standard literary essays about craft and theme written in an academic or how-to style. Rather, they become social explorations as well as literary observations , a fact that broadens their seemingly narrow appeal. Baxter begins most of the essays by making what he calls "wild claims" about the art of reading and writing fiction. In "Dysfunctional Narratives: or 'Mistakes Were Made/" he suggests that former President Nixon's memoir is a model for the concept of deniability or "the fiction of finger-pointing" which Baxter believes is rampant in the fiction of the past twenty years. He uses Jane Smiley's much admired A Thousand Acres as an example of the dysfunctional narrative as art because her characters are "reacting obscurely to the harms done to them in the psychic past." He argues that melodrama is not an artistic "failure of the imagination" and suggests that some of the best writers —Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon to name a few—successfully use melodramatic elements, namely through the camouflaged belief in evil and perpetual struggle. Out of sync with the rest of the essays in the collection is "Rhyming Action," a piece which identifies several wickedly funny differences between the life and work of poets and prose writers: 'The poets start the party and dance the longest, but they don't know how to plug in the audio system, and they have to wait for the prose writers to show them where the on/off switch is." Opinions like this belong to the satirical work of Fran Leibowitz or Cynthia Heimel and not in a meditative essay that examines what Baxter calls "stutter memories," in which prose writers, like poets, repeat key scenes or ideas for effect. Though the nine pieces included in the collection are essays that Baxter says began as class lectures, he utilizes his best storytelling techniques , allowing his discussions to slowly meander, take sudden sharp turns or associative leaps; yet he is always working his way back to his initial idea. Like his fiction, Baxter's essays are readable, direct, and contemporary . Baxter understands that one does not have to be a fiction writer to want to know how enduring fiction is created. (KS) Robert Penn Warren: A Biography by Joseph Blotner Random House, 1997, 585 pp., $35 Blotner's eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable biography is prefaced by a calendar of important events in Warren's life, beginning with his birth in Kentucky to a poetry-loving father and a schoolteacher mother. The frail, undersized youngster endured a lonely childhood, during which he lived in 206 · The Missouri Review a self-contained world of books. At seventeen, he lost his chance for a naval career at Annapolis, his fondest dream, when his younger brother flung a piece of coal over a hedge, hitting him in the left eye, which he later lost to surgery. At Vanderbilt, Warren idolized his teacher John Crowe Ransom, the first poet he had ever met, with whom he shared his own poems. After earning assistantships, fellowships , and scholarships to the University of California, Yale, and Oxford, Warren eventually settled into married life, became editor of The Southern Review, and achieved fame with his novel All the King's Men. Fame and fortune were offset, however, by recurring unhappiness and depression. In college Warren suffered an emotional breakdown and attempted suicide because he had fallen so far behind in his studies . He endured a disastrous first marriage to a neurasthenic, who spent most of her time bedridden. In later years, Warren enjoyed a happy second marriage, along with fame and financial security. Generous quotations from Warren 's letters reveal the intense struggle of the High Modernist. While working on All the King's Men, Warren wrote to his close friend...


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pp. 206-207
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