Native Texan Greg Baxter’s first book, 2010’s autobiographical essay collection A Preparation for Death, elicited this from a reviewer at Ireland’s Independent (Baxter lives in Dublin): “One wonders to what extent Baxter’s espousal of autobiography is a result of his failure to crack fiction.” Harsher commentary follows, and a second critic offered no rebuttal: “Baxter derives no special philosophical insight from his experiences, and his prose is no better than workmanlike.”
But Baxter’s latest work, a short novel titled The Apartment, offers plenty of insulation against future accusations of sophomoric self-indulgence. Though he withholds the name of his narrator and that narrator’s city of refuge, Baxter spends some 200 pages leading his character through an autobiographical exercise. But in this case the undertaking is intricate and complex, both reportage and confession, littered with moments of meaning—or at least a meaningful search for same.
In a purely practical sense, Baxter’s American narrator seeks real estate: an apartment. Having spent six weeks in an unremarkable hotel in an Eastern European city, he would simply “like a table to place a bowl of fruit on.” It’s this search—a day-long sojourn through bleak winter with a younger female companion—that frames much of the novel, explaining how and why this American has landed in a place he’d never before laid eyes on without so much as notifying his family or packing a bag.
The narrator’s kinship with Saskia, the woman steering him through the city, is mostly without romance, but the two share an unlikely easiness that stabilizes the present and softens the solitude and incongruity of the narrator’s preceding years.
It’s this incongruity that lends the novel much of its momentum. Though the American tries “not to think about the past,” his story is nothing without it, and he meanders through personal history the way he meanders in search of a place to call home. His unfurling ruminations describe time in the Navy during the Iraq conflict and work as a reservist gathering intelligence in a giant hangar lined with surveillance screens tracking explosions and casualties from thousands of miles away. He later works as a military contractor, making money hand over fist because “the Army didn’t trust you if your fees weren’t preposterous.” In another episode, he recalls living in a demoralizing apartment building neighbored by an NFL football stadium and a mental hospital, an America surreal enough to seem utterly foreign.
The dissonance is as internal as it is external. The narrator’s memories are lucid, yet he often distrusts them. He flees the U.S. seeking anonymity, yet he’s reluctant to be without Saskia’s company. Certain interludes present reasoned statements about human senselessness—evidence of an astute mind engaged with its surroundings. But other times he thirsts for “a state of weightlessness, as though I am in deep space.”
The result is an elegant portrait of a man half-fractured, half-intact—a post-war somebody caught between repair and capitulation, controlling his own fate and imprisoned by regret.
With The Apartment, Baxter has assuredly “cracked fiction,” if not according to fiction’s usual means of escalating plot points and pressurized action, then through the tensions that plague and illuminate the inner life, and the quieter moments of a disquieted psyche.