‘He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.’ -The Sun Collective, by Charles Baxter

December 7, 2020 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books)

  The Sun Collective is a novel that is both magical and ordinary. Charles Baxter’s numerous bon mots are, to my mind, enchanting. His characters are at once pedestrian and unique, in the way that all persons are unique.

Harry and Alma Brettigan share a decades old marriage. Here’s how Harry sums things up:

He and Alma had  been married so long that love really didn’t really figure into the whole business anymore, and their tolerance for each other’s eccentricities didn’t matter much either–Alma was like water: you didn’t have to love water when you were thirsty. You just needed it to live. That’s how they were with each other. They had gone from love to post-love, where each one for the other was a necessity.

With regard to those eccentricities: Alma has a much shorter fuse than Harry. She is forever criticizing his ‘tone’ and trying to shut  him down. I rather enjoyed Harry’s piquant, aphoristic style of speech. Alma’s repeated objections took on a whining tone – at least, they did for me. So while my affection for him grew, so did my irritation with her. I objected to her objections!

The whole thing was rather entertaining.

Meanwhile, their son Timothy has gone AWOL; there’s a suspicion that he’s allied himself with a  group called the Sun Collective. Then there’s a young couple, Christina and Ludlow, who are definitely involved  with this mysterious organization. (To Christina belongs one of my favorite ‘thought bubbles’ in the novel: “She bit into her cheeseburger. Who could ever be a vegan when food tasted like this?”)

It’s difficult to determine whether the goals of the Sun Collective are benign or sinister. Actually, I found it hard to care, one way or another, because I was so wrapped up in the ongoing psychodrama of Harry and Alma’s relationship.

Here’s one of Harry’s wry observations concerning the vagaries of his fellow citizens:

In America, with its strange pragmatism, the idea  was that you could postpone death indefinitely if you simply took the proper steps and followed the self-help advice given out by paid programming dietitians and fitness experts who could also be found expounding their theories on the internet. If you died, you would be criticized for your bad  habits: too much pasta, a sedentary lifestyle, whiskey instead of herbal energy drinks, pessimism. Your death would  be all your fault.

Passages like this occur throughout this novel and are one of its chief joys.

Baxter’s writing is at times quite lyrical:

On that porch, Brettigan sat in the late afternoons with his glass of sun tea, his mind empty of anxious thought, and when the sparrows, who were used to him, flew down onto the edge of the porch, he would reach into his pocket  for bread crumbs and toss them down. He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.

In those moments, he felt the peace that passes all human understanding, and he thought: This is what everybody wants. The Kingdom of God is on Earth.

The events of the novel, such as they are, take place in Minneapolis and its environs. The cold, unpredictable climate has an inevitable affect on the course of the story.

I remember years ago reading a novel by Charles Baxter called Saul and Patsy, and liking it very much. This is the reason I downloaded The Sun Collective as soon as  learned of its existence. I was not disappointed; on the contrary, I was delighted.

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