Set in Europe, new novel has roots in Baton Rouge

Greg Baxter’s novel “The Apartment” may be set in a cold, snowy capital in Europe, but its genesis was in Baton Rouge.

“The book was born in Baton Rouge back in 2003,” Baxter, an LSU grad who now lives in Berlin, said. “It took time to germinate, to gestate.”

His first novel, published this month by Twelve Books, happens in a single day, as a man striving for anonymity looks for an apartment.

The unnamed protagonist, Baxter says, is based on a couple of people he knows, in particular a Navy man he knew in Baton Rouge who, like the main character, spent time in Iraq. “The Apartment” is dedicated to him, but Baxter said he must remain unnamed because he’s still enlisted.

“The job he did sort of preoccupied me,” Baxter said. The protagonist’s memories of Iraq were cut-and-pasted from emails Baxter’s friend sent him. Another friend from Baton Rouge pulled a stunt similar to another character in the book, calling his wife from in front of his house, telling her to take care because police were searching for a man, then gave her a description of what he was wearing.

“That’s an incredibly creepy thing to do,” Baxter said.

Similarly, the city “The Apartment” is set in is another mash-up of places.

“It has a lot of similarities to cities I have been to, and experiences that I’ve had when I was living abroad,” he said. “If it had been a city, it was one of the ways the story could’ve gone quite wrong,” he said. “If it was suddenly Paris or Vienna, maybe the sort of stale, tepid qualities of the romances of the people in these cities would kind of ruin what these people are trying to do.”

With no name for the protagonist or the city, there are few details that pin the book down. Baxter’s story floats in the reader’s mind, making “The Apartment” a different story to everyone who reads it.

“Ultimately, what I was trying to achieve is a kind of stillness, a kind of self-contained work that didn’t rise out of itself to make comments, to produce commentary on the external world,” he said. “You won’t find a hidden, universal truth. That’s the sort of pay-off for books. I wanted to get rid of all those moments so all that was left were the observations. ... My hope is that all that’s important in this novel are the things that aren’t stated, that aren’t said.”

Baxter, originally from San Antonio, feels more at home on the move and is drawn toward Europe. He took his first trip there at 16, and has lived in Ireland, England and Austria.

“Up until I lived in Baton Rouge, I hadn’t spent more than 18 months in any place for more than 10 years,” he said. America, particularly its literary influences, felt “strange, imbalanced” to him, he said.

To counter it, Baxter flung himself headlong into eastern European and Russian literature, gravitating toward lesser-known authors.

The result of his travels, both physical and literary, is an intriguing book that includes both the rich storytelling of the American south and the sparse style of eastern European and Russian authors.

“That’s what’s happening in this book: Flannery O’Connor is colliding with Thomas Bernhard,” Baxter said. “A Southern tradition I was struggling with for a long time meets an eastern European-Russian tradition. What comes out is a really strange and mysterious book.”