The Barnes & Noble Review
Charles Baxter's follow-up to his National Book Awardnominated The Feast of Love is a quirky, thoughtful tale of a young couple whose complex marriage suffers through a series of tragic events after an obsessed teenager infiltrates their lives. The titular pair, Saul and Patsy, live out a simple dream life in the American heartland, until one of Saul's high school students commits suicide in front of them. Following that death, Saul becomes the focus of a group of disaffected teenage outcasts set on causing trouble.
A craftsman with the keen ability to transform the everyday into the exceptional, Baxter takes flawed, haunted characters and turns their dilemmas into electrifying, emotionally wrought drama. The author is skillful and evenhanded enough to delve into the customary questions concerning marriage, fealty, and obligations to one's neighbors; and yet he avoids the predictable narrative traps and clichés.
Saul and Patsy is sardonic and occasionally chilling in its depiction of madness and misfortune, but the novel is so well layered with wit and irony that it always remains a balanced, insightful tale of enduring love. Baxter is highly accomplished where disturbing twists, conflicts, and internal action are the essence of the human condition. Perceptive and involving, Saul and Patsy is a fascinating, satisfying saga you'll forever cherish. Tom Piccirilli
The Washington Post
At a time when we're all being goaded to buy into a shallow and stereotyped divide between the pundit-sired "red" and "blue" Americas, Charles Baxter reminds us that there is no regional monopoly on virtue and understanding, and no easy comforts for either self-appointed world-savers or smug populists. And for all those hard lessons, Baxter also manages to deliver Saul and Patsy into something astonishingly close to a happy ending. Such indeed is the glory of love -- and of fully realized fiction. Chris Lehmann
The New Yorker
It is rare that a novel, even a good one, manages to evoke contemporary life without being self-conscious about it. But that is what Baxter achieves here in his portrait of a recently married couple—neurotic, cantankerous Saul Bernstein, who has taken a job teaching high school in rural Michigan, and his wife, Patsy, who does her best to steady him. Saul rages at one point, “If you put a Vermeer on television, it stopped being a Vermeer and turned into something else on television.” Baxter’s painterly technique reverses this process: moments that in other hands would be merely sensational (one of Saul’s remedial students shoots himself on Saul’s lawn) here assume their rightful place in the continuum of a young couple’s experience and inexperience.
Despite its title, this searching, reflective novel is less concerned with couplehood than it is with the fretful inner life of one half of the eponymous married pair. Saul Bernstein, a literary descendant of Bellow's Herzog, is a transplanted Baltimore Jew, observing his newfound hometown-the "dusty, luckless" fictional city of Five Oaks, Mich.-with an ill-at-ease hyperawareness. Young-marrieds Saul and Patsy move to Five Oaks from Evanston, Ill., when Saul is hired to teach at the local high school. They rent a farmhouse, where they make love in every room and even in the backyard, settling into the rhythms of domestic life. Patsy, a former modern dancer who finds work as a bank teller, gives birth to a daughter, and with infinite patience tolerates her "professional worrier" of a husband. The narrative is dense with quotidian detail, precisely charted shifts of consciousness and pitch-perfect moments of emotional truth, but Baxter (The Feast of Love; Believers, etc.) doesn't have full control of the novel's architecture. The narrative crests occasionally on signs and wonders (early on, Saul has a spiritual epiphany after sighting an albino deer), but turns on the inexplicable suicide of Saul's illiterate, inarticulate student, Gordy Himmelman. Blamed by some for the boy's death, Saul must struggle against real community hostility instead of imagined anti-Semitism. Resolutely, he refuses to give up on his adopted Midwestern hometown, bringing this luminously prosaic if sometimes meandering novel to a quietly triumphant conclusion. (Sept. 9) Forecast: This is Baxter's first novel since The Feast of Love, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2001. His wider name recognition and the cumulative strength of his steadily growing body of work will benefit this solid effort. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Verily, as Baxter has now discovered, to be known as a "writer's writer" is both a blessing and a curse. Saul and Patsy, his eighth published work of fiction, has further enhanced his reputation as a consummate stylist and wordsmith if not brought him the breakout commercial success that has eluded him thus far. Set in the small fictional town of Five Oaks, MI, Baxter's acutely reflective novel queries the bonds and braids of marriage and obsession. Our eponymously named young married couple is solidly ensconced in the Midwest, where Saul is a high school teacher and Patsy, a former dancer, works for a bank as a loan officer. A displaced Eastern big city Jew, Saul is brooding and exceedingly self-aware. The narrative linchpin is the Bartleby-like presence in the couple's life of one of Saul's students and the far-reaching implications of emotional bondage in this life and beyond. With its subtly shifting perspectives and narrative voices, studied pace, and textual imagery, the story could easily take the back roads to listener "listlessville," but in Tony-award winning actor John Rubinstein's capable narration the tale is immediately and consistently engaging, especially when narrated in Saul's voice. A strong choice for audio collections emphasizing contemporary fiction.-Barry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
What seems like a safe haven for a loving young couple is shattered by a high-school dropout's suicide: Baxter's latest follows The Feast of Love, an NBA finalist in 2000. Saul and Patsy met at Northwestern, where they quickly fell in love, animal passions blending with a rare intimacy of mind and spirit. Now here they are, young marrieds, still passionate, living in semi-rural Michigan; Saul is a high-school teacher in a featureless city. Though an angst-ridden urban Jew, Saul enjoys the "indifference" of the Heartland; besides, he's on a mission to undo "the dumbness." How ironic, then, that he rolls the car after some serious drinking. He and Patsy find refuge in the home of a former (dumb) student, already married to his high-school sweetheart. Saul admires their simple ways and becomes a voyeur, detouring past their "damnable house of happiness," never dreaming he will soon acquire a voyeur himself. Patsy has had a baby girl and Saul takes some baby pictures into his remedial English class, whose dumbest student, Gordy Himmelman, plainly loathes him. Gordy starts showing up on their front lawn, staring, immobile; one time he produces an unloaded gun. Saul drives the parentless Gordy back to his aunt Brenda, a benighted hag-like waitress, but Gordy keeps returning until one day, with the storybook family watching, he blows his brains out. In death, Gordy becomes the object of a high-school cult. Kids bleach their hair and call themselves "Himmels." Saul, who has figured out that Gordy was "offering himself . . . for adoption," becomes a scapegoat. The climax comes on Halloween when eight kids drive up, arson and worse on their minds. Saul, drawing on dramatic and parenting skills henever knew he had, brilliantly defuses the crisis. Baxter is a master of stealth, easing us by degrees from a world shaped by love toward a creepy nihilism. His deft fusion of a love story with a post-Columbine psychodrama is a major achievement.
From the Publisher
"Stunning, never predictable, glimmering fiction, full of mischief and insight." –The Los Angeles Times
“Marvelous. . . . Baxter's prose–trenchant, funny, and apt to turn on a metaphysical dime–remains one of the pure pleasures of American fiction.” –The Atlantic Monthly
“For the past twenty years, Baxter has been writing some of the finest fiction in America about love, longing and the holes we carve in one another's hearts. . . . [Saul and Patsy is] eerily beautiful.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Baxter at his best. He is an observer and writer of prodigious gifts”. A disquieting, thoroughly enjoyable and unforgettable novel.” — The Seattle Times
"A tale of generations at war and the troubled underside of placid Midwestern life . . . abounding in irony and wit, and reminiscent of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow." –San Francisco Chronicle
“Baxter reminds us that there is no regional monopoly on virtue and understanding, and no easy comforts for either self-appointed world-savers or smug populists. And for all those hard lessons, Baxter also manages to deliver Saul and Patsy into something astonishingly close to a happy ending. Such indeed is the glory of loveand of fully realized fiction.” –The Washington Post Book World
“One of our most gifted writers.” –Chicago Tribune
"Thoughts sprawl delightfully, insanely, worryingly and sometimes brilliantly from Saul, who, we often have to remind ourselves, is only in his twenties. . . . Funny and grown-up and generous." –The New York Times Book Review
"Charles Baxter's novel Saul and Patsy is what it appears to bea love story. But underneath its placid surface broils biting social commentary, a tale of lost teenagers adrift in a culture with no moral center." –The Oregonian
"Saul and Patsy [is] a penetrating, surprisingly funny meditation on the dynamics of community belonging and acceptance." –The New York Times
"[Baxter] weaves magic into everyday life as if it were mere coincidence. Clark Kent is to Superman as Charles Baxter is to his writing." –Los Angeles Times
"It is rare that a novel, even a good one, manages to evoke contemporary life without being self-conscious about it. But that is what Baxter achieves here." –The New Yorker
"Watch out for the 'quiet Midwestern' tag on [Baxter's] writing: That's the iceberg you will strike. There is nothing simple in his universe, and nothing solely on the surface. Baxter's intelligence and humor are submerged, and dangerous. You knowsomething like yours." –Detroit Free Press
"Baxter . . . make[s] the mundane seem marvelous, the everyday seem extraordinary. . . . A clever and empathetic writer." –The Capital Times
"On almost every page at least one sentence would make me stop and shake my head in amazement and wonder. . . . Few lessons can be more valuable than a sense of how important the persistence of questioning must be to any fully realized human life. Few novels manage to renew that important sense so vividly and poignantly as Saul and Patsy." –Logan Browning, Houston Chronicle
"Both hilarious and poignant." –The Dallas Morning News
"Baxter defies the laws of publishing gravity: He went up and has yet to come down. . . . Baxter's new novel is just as bright and fully imagined, just as energetic as anything that came before." –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Brilliantly exploring the emotional intricacies of a young marriage, Charles Baxter's latest novel, Saul and Patsy, uncannily exposes the least flattering side of human desire while celebrating the inexplicable power that love has over our lives." –Rocky Mountain News
"A warm, sad, subtle tale of difficult love." –O, The Oprah Magazine
"Baxter's store of figurative language and rich, apt description is essentially boundless, and he draws generously from it for all the characters." –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"More proof that Baxter is one of the best novelists anywhere. Every line packs a double punchwhat it apparently means and what it really means." –Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Charles Baxter has a uniquely keen eye for the seemingly minor, ultimately telling, detail." –The Denver Post
"Baxter is a gifted, humane novelist." –Newsday
Read an Excerpt
About a year after they had rented the farmhouse with loose brown aluminum siding on Whitefeather Road, Saul began glaring out the west window after dinner into the unappeasable darkness that pressed against the glass, as if he were angry at the flat uncultivated farmland for being farmland instead of glass and cement. "No sane Jew," he said, "ever lived on a dirt road." Patsy reminded him of Poland, Russia, and the nineteenth century. Then she pointed down at the Scrabble board and told him to play. To spite her, he spelled out "axiom" over a triple-word score, for forty-two points. "That was totally different," Saul said, shaking his head. "Completely different. That was when everyone but the landowners lived on dirt roads. It was a democracy of dirt roads, the nineteenth century." Patsy was clutching her bottle of root beer with one hand and arranging the letters on her slate with the other. Her legs were crossed in the chair, and the bottle was positioned against the instep of her right foot. She looked up at him and smiled. He couldn't help it? he smiled back. She was so beautiful, she could make him copy her gestures without his meaning to.
"We're not landowners either," she said. "We're renters. Oh, I forgot to tell you. I had to go into the basement this afternoon for a screwdriver, and I noticed that there's a mouse in the trap downstairs."
"Is it dead?"
"Oh, sure." She nodded. "It looks quite dead. You know--smashed back, slightly open mouth, and bulging eyes. I'll spare you the full description. You'll see the whole scene soon enough when you go down there--I didn't want to throw it out myself."
"I did the dishes," Saul complained,sitting up, running his fingers through his hair.
"I could throw the mouse out," Patsy said, leaning back, taking a swig and giving him another obliging smile. "I can now, and I could have then." She straightened her leg and placed her foot against his ankle, and she raised her eyebrows as an ironic courtesy. "But the truth is, those little critters give me the whimwhams, and I'd rather not. I'd rather you did it, Saul. Just, you know, as a favor to me. You do it, my man, and there might be something in it for you."
"What? What would be in it for me?"
"The trick in negotiations," she said, "is not to make promises too soon. Why don't you just do it as a favor to me? A sort of little gratuitous act of kindness? One of them guys?"
He stood up, shaking the letters on the Scrabble board, and clomped in his white socks to the kitchen, where the flashlight was stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet that was so weak that the flashlight kept sliding down to the floor, though it was only halfway there now. "I didn't say you had to do it instantly," Patsy shouted. "This very minute. You could wait until the game is over."
"Well, if you didn't want it thrown out now, you shouldn't have mentioned it. Besides, I can't concentrate," Saul said, half to himself as he flicked the flashlight off and on, "thinking about that dead mouse." The batteries were so low that the light from the bulb was foggy and brown. He opened the door to the basement, fanning stale air, and stared down the steps into the darkness that smelled of must and heating oil. He didn't like the basement. At night, in bed, he thought he heard crying from down there, ancestral accusations. "You'll do anything to beat me at Scrabble," Saul said aloud to himself. "This is gamesmanship, honey. Don't tell me otherwise."
He snapped on the wall switch, and the shadows of the steps sawtoothed themselves in front of him. "I really don't like this," he said, walking down the stairs, a sliver from the banister leaping into the heel of his hand. "This is not my idea of a good time." He heard Patsy say something consoling and inaudible.
On his left were the wooden shelves once meant for storing preserves. On these shelves, mason jars, empty and gathering dust, now lined up unevenly. Saul and Patsy's landlord, Mr. Munger, a retired farmer and unsuccessful freelance preacher who had a fitful temper, had thrown their lids together into an angry heap on a lower shelf. The washtubs were on Saul's right, and in front of him, four feet away, was the sprung mousetrap. The mouse had been pressed flat by the trap, and its tiny yellow incisors were showing at the sides of its mouth, just as Patsy had said.
He loved her, but she could be manipulative when it came to getting him to do household chores that she didn't want to do. Maybe, out of his sight, she was exchanging her letter tiles.
Saul grunted, loosened the spring, and picked up the mouse by the tail, which felt like cold rubber. His fingers brushed against the animal's downy fur, soft as milkweed pods. Being, on a miniature scale, had once been inhabited there. With his other hand he held the flashlight. He heard other mice scratching in the basement corners. Why kill mice if there were always going to be more of them? After climbing the stairs and opening the back door, he set the flashlight down: the cool air and the darkness made his flesh prickle. Still holding the tiny pilgrim, he took four steps into the backyard. Feeling a scant moment of desolation, nothing more than a breeze of feeling, he threw the mouse toward the field, its body arcing over the tiny figure on the horizon of a distant radio transmitting tower, one pulsing red light at its tip. Saul took a deep breath. The blankness of the midwestern landscape excited him. There was a sensual loneliness here that belonged to him now, that was truly his. He thought that fate had perhaps turned him into one of those characters in Russian literature abandoned to haphazard fortune and solitude on the steppes.
Nothing out there seemed friendly except the lights on the horizon, and they were too far away to be of any help.
He walked into the living room, where Patsy was wrapped in a blanket. "Good news and bad news," Saul said, tilting his head. "The good news is that I threw out the mouse. The bad news is that it, she, was pregnant. Maybe that's good news. You decide. By the way, I see that you've wrapped yourself in a blanket. Now why is that? Too cold in here?"
She had dimmed the light, turning the three-way bulb to its lowest wattage. She wasn't sitting in the chair anymore. She was lying on the sofa, the root beer nowhere in sight. With a grand gesture she parted the blanket: she had taken off her clothes except for her underwear, and just above her breasts she had placed six Scrabble letters:
"Nine points," he said, settling himself down next to her, breathing in her odor, a clear celery-like smell, although tonight it seemed to be mixed with ether. He picked the letters off her skin with his teeth and one by one gently spat them down onto the rug.
"I guess it's good news," Patsy said, "that we don't have all those baby mice in a mouse nursery down there." She kissed him.
"Um," Saul said. "This was what was in it for me?"
"Plain old married love," Patsy said, helping him take his jeans off. Then she lifted up her pelvis as he removed her underwear. "Plain old married love is only what it is."
He moved down next to her as she unbuttoned his shirt. He said, "Sometimes I think you'll go to any length to avoid losing in Scrabble. I think it's a character weakness on your part. Neurotic rigidity. David Shapiro talks about this in his book on neurotic styles. Check it out. It's a loser's trick. I spelled out 'axiom' and you saw the end of your possibilities."
"It's not a trick," she said, absentmindedly stroking his thighs, while he pointed his index finger and pretended to write with it across her breasts and then down across her abdomen. "Hey," she said, "what're you writing with that finger?"
"'I love Patsy,'" he said. "I'm not writing it, I'm printing it."
"Make it more readable."
"'I love Patsy,'" she said. "Seventeen points."
"Sixteen. And it depends where it's placed."
"A V is worth four." His eyes were closed. With one hand he was caressing her right breast, and with the other he wrote other words with imaginative lettering across her hips. "I don't remember making love in this room before. Especially not with the shades up." She stretched to kiss his face and to tease her tongue briefly into his mouth. Then she trailed her finger across his back. "I can do that, too." She traced the letters with her finger just under his shoulders.
"That was an I," Saul said.
"'I love Saul'?" he asked. "Is that what you're writing?"
"You're so conceited. So self-centered."
"The curtains are parted," he said. "The neighbors will see."
"We don't have neighbors. This is the rural middle of American nowhere. Always has been."
"People will drive by on Whitefeather Road and see us having sex on the sofa." He waited. "They might be shocked."
"We're married," she said.
He laughed. "You're wicked, Patsy."
"You keep using old adjectives," she said, sliding her hands up the sides of his chest. "Old blah-blah adjectives that no one uses anymore. That's a habit you should swear off. Let those people watch us. They might learn something." She slithered down to kiss the scar on his knee, then moved up. "The only thing I mind about sex," she said after another minute, "and I've said this before, is that it cuts down on the small talk."
"We talk a lot," Saul said, positioning himself next to her and finally entering her. He grunted, then said, "I think we talk more than most people. No, I'm sure of it. We've always jabbered. Most people don't talk this much, men especially." He was making genial moves inside her. "Of course, it's hard to tell. I mean, who does surveys?"
"Oh, Saul," she said. "You know, I'm glad I know you. Out here in the wilds a girl needs a pal, she really does. You're my pal, Saul. You are. I love you."
"It's true," he said. "We're buddies. Bosom buddies." He kissed a breast. On an impulse, he twisted slightly so that he could reach over to the card table behind him and scoop up a handful of Scrabble letters from the playing board.
"Aren't you too cute. What're you doing?" she asked.
"I'm going to baptize you," he said, slowly dropping the tiled letters on her face and shoulders and breasts. "I'm going to baptize you in The Word."
"God," she said, as a P and an E fell into her hair, "to think that I wanted to distract you with a mouse caught in a trap."
Saul had been hired eighteen months earlier to teach American history, journalism, and speech in the Five Oaks High School. In its general appearance and in its particulars, however, Five Oaks, Michigan, was not what he and Patsy had had in mind. They had planned to settle down in Boston, or, in the worst-case scenario, the north side of Chicago, a good place for a young married couple. They had been working at office jobs in Evanston after graduating from Northwestern, and one day, driving home along the lake, Saul seemed to have a seizure of frustration. He began to shout about the supervision and the random surveillance, how he couldn't breathe or open his office window. "Budget projections for a bus company," he said, "is no longer meaningful work, and it turns out that it never was." He rambled on about getting certified for secondary school because he needed to contribute to what he called "the great project of undoing the dumbness that's been done."
"Saul," Patsy said, sitting on the passenger side and working at a week-old Sunday crossword, "you're underlining your words again."
"This country is falling into the hands of the rich and stupid," Saul grumbled, underlining his words while waving his right hand in an all-purpose gesture at the windshield. "The plutocrats are taking over and keeping everybody ignorant about how things are. The conspiracy of the inane starts in the schools, but it gets big results in business. Everywhere I've looked lately I've seen a cynic in a position of tremendous responsibility. We're being undermined by rich cynics and common people who have been, forcibly, made stupid. This has got to stop. I've got to be a teacher. It's a political necessity. At least for a few years."
"There's lots of stupidity out there, Saul," Patsy said, glancing up at a stoplight. "A big supply. You think you're going to clear it away? That's your plan?" She waited. "The light just turned green. Pay attention to the road, please." She smiled. "'Drive, he sd.'" She reached out and touched him on the cheek. "'For christ's sake, look out where yr going.'"
"Don't quote Creely at me. I'm the big man for the job," Saul said. "This country needs me."
"Well, of course." She scratched her hair. "Write an editorial, why don't you? Nine letters for 'acidic.' First letter is V and the fourth one is R."
"'Vitriolic,'" Saul said. "And you could get certified, too. Or you could insinuate yourself into a bureaucracy and reorganize it. You're so lovable, everybody just does what you ask them to do, without thinking. Boston is full of deadwood. God knows, you can reorganize deadwood. It's been proved." He waited. "You could do whatever you wanted to, if we moved out of here. What do you want to do, Patsy?"
"Finger-exercise composer," Patsy said. "Six letters, last letter Y and first letter C."
"Boston, huh?" She gazed at the sky. "It's sort of hard to get teaching jobs there, isn't it? Oh, and, by the way, what am I going to do if you start teaching? I don't want to teach."
"That's what I was just asking you. You're not listening to me. What do you want to do?" Patsy had had half-a-dozen majors before she settled for a double major in dance-performance and English.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know what I want to do." She studied the sky. "I'd like to go work in a bank, actually." Another pause. "In the mortgage department."
The statement was so unlike her, Saul smiled. One of her dry, shifty, ironical asides whose subtext you had to go in search of. Then he realized that perhaps she meant it, and he studied her face for aspersions, but Patsy, who was vehement about privacy issues, did not give herself away.