Saul and Patsy

( 5 )

Overview

Five Oaks, Michigan is not exactly where Saul and Patsy meant to end up. Both from the East Coast, they met in college, fell in love, and settled down to married life in the Midwest. Saul is Jewish and a compulsively inventive worrier; Patsy is gentile and cheerfully pragmatic. On Saul’s initiative (and to his continual dismay) they have moved to this small town–a place so devoid of irony as to be virtually “a museum of earlier American feelings”–where he has taken a job ...
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Overview

Five Oaks, Michigan is not exactly where Saul and Patsy meant to end up. Both from the East Coast, they met in college, fell in love, and settled down to married life in the Midwest. Saul is Jewish and a compulsively inventive worrier; Patsy is gentile and cheerfully pragmatic. On Saul’s initiative (and to his continual dismay) they have moved to this small town–a place so devoid of irony as to be virtually “a museum of earlier American feelings”–where he has taken a job teaching high school.

Soon this brainy and guiltily happy couple will find children have become a part of their lives, first their own baby daughter and then an unloved, unlovable boy named Gordy Himmelman. It is Gordy who will throw Saul and Patsy’s lives into disarray with an inscrutable act of violence. As timely as a news flash yet informed by an immemorial understanding of human character, Saul and Patsy is a genuine miracle.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Charles Baxter's follow-up to his National Book Award–nominated 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

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 giftsÉ. 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 love--and 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 be--a 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 know--something 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 punch--what 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

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.
Publishers Weekly
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.
Publishers Weekly

For the first quarter of this novel, even the talented John Rubinstein can't save it from sounding like Annie Hall Redux. The clash between Midwest WASP and East Coast Jew is better captured by Woody Allen in a single line. However, this quirky novel improves vastly when the none-too-bright Gordy, performed to slow-talking perfection by Rubinstein, stalks Saul's family, and the plot shifts into a different gear. Rubinstein subtly controls the voice of Gordy's aunt Brenda so that she sounds simultaneously greedy and grieving. He individuates Saul's friends and family and occasionally provides amusing sound effects-for example, Mad Dog inhaling pot and then speaking with his throat full of smoke. Rubinstein's well-paced narration extracts as much humor from the novel as possible. Unfortunately, the audio's production is far from perfect. Awkward silences separate the tracks, and each CD ends abruptly. Occasional bits of music seem randomly dropped in. Despite the technical flaws, Rubinstein's fine performance makes Saul & Patsya notable new audio. A Vintage paperback (Reviews, Sept. 28, 2003). (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375709166
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/12/2005
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of seven other works of fiction, including Believers, Harmony of the World, and Through the Safety Net. The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Biography

Although his body of work includes poetry and essays, award-winning writer Charles Baxter is best known for his fiction -- brilliantly crafted, non-linear stories that twist and turn in unexpected directions before reaching surprising yet nearly always satisfying conclusions. He specializes in portraits of solid Midwesterners, regular Joes and Janes whose ordinary lives are disrupted by accidents, chance encounters, and the arrival of strangers; and his books have garnered a fierce and loyal following among readers and critics alike.

Born in Minneapolis in 1947, Baxter was barely a toddler when his father died. His mother remarried a wealthy attorney who moved the family onto a sprawling estate in suburban Excelsior. From prep school, Baxter was expected to attend Williams, but instead he chose Macalester, a small, liberal arts college in St. Paul. Intending to pursue a career in teaching and writing, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, attracted by a faculty that included such literary luminaries of the day as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

After grad school, Baxter moved to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He spent more than a decade concentrating on writing poetry, but after a particularly discouraging dry spell, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He labored long and hard over three novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Then, just as he was about to give up altogether, he attempted one last trick. He whittled the three novels down to short stories, replacing epic themes, extraordinary characters, and ambitious story arcs with the small, quiet stuff of ordinary life. It was a good decision, In 1984, his first collection of short fiction, Harmony of the World, was published. Another anthology followed, then a debut novel. Published in 1987, First Light charmed readers with its unusual structure (the story unfolds backwards in time) and a cast of richly, draw, fully human characters.

Baxter continued to publish throughout the 1990s, alternating between short and full-length fiction, and with each book he garnered larger, more appreciative audiences and better reviews. His breakthrough occurred in 2000 with Feast of Love, a novel composed of many small stories that form a single, cohesive narrative. Described by The New York Times as "...rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing," Feast of Love was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out," Baxter confessed in a 2003 interview. Yet he keeps on crafting absorbing stories infused with quiet (sometimes absurdist) wit and a compassionate understanding of the human condition. A longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, he is known as a generous mentor, and several of his students have gone on to forge successful literary careers of their own.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Baxter shared some fascinating insights with us:

"My novels are sometimes criticized for being episodic, or structurally weird. And they are! I like them that way. It's fairly late in the day -- 2003 as I write -- in the history of the novel, and I think it's fair for writers to mess around with that form, and to stop thinking that they have to write books that move smoothly from the first act to the second act, and then to the climax and the denouement. I like digressions, asides, intrusions, advice, anything that gets in the way of a smooth narcotic flow. New novels should not look like old novels, except when they want to."

"My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I expect the unexpected to happen in life and in art, and my fiction is full, or loaded down, with unexpected fatalities of one kind or another. For me, that's realism."

"I had an unhappy childhood that I thought was happy, and I dove into books as inspiration and relief and comfort and security and information about what people did and how they thought. I can still get happy and sentimental just over the thought of libraries -- the image of a woman sitting quietly and reading is a terrifically sexy image for me."

"Like many writers, I'm private and quiet and observant and bookish. For a physical outlet, I lift weights at the gym two or three times a week, and I don't quit unless and until I've worked up a fairly good sweat. Many writers need an outlet like that to counter the sedentary nature of what they do. I don't have any wild delusions about the greatness of my work: I am happy to work humbly in this field where so many writers have created so many immortal manifestations of the mind and spirit. As Henry James said, you work in the dark; you do what you can; the rest is the madness of art."

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    1. Hometown:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

One

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:

HI SAUL

"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."

"Why?"

"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.

"Yes."

"'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."

"Czerny."

"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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

One

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:

HI SAUL

"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."

"Why?"

"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.

"Yes."

"'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."

"Czerny."

"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.
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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with Saul and Patsy playing Scrabble in their rented house. What does this scene tell us about them? What is unusual or interesting about the ways in which Baxter introduces his characters in the opening chapter? What details make this chapter so effective as an entry point into the novel?

2. Saul decides to become a high school history teacher so that he can undertake “the great project of undoing the dumbness that’s been done” [p. 8]. Does his experience as a teacher show him that he can have a positive effect on this widespread cultural “dumbness”? What makes him come to the realization that “some things you can’t help; some things you can’t save, and you’re better off not trying” [p. 91], and is his frustration justified?

3. Saul’s mother warns him that life in Michigan is “nothing . . . you’re living in nothingness” [pp. 26–27]. Why is Five Oaks both frightening and interesting to Saul, and how does his Jewishness shape his perception of the place? One thing that intrigues Saul about the Midwest is its indifference. How does he experience this indifference? Does this include moral indifference? Is the anti-Semitism he perceives everywhere just a result of paranoia?

4. Saul lives in “the lagoon of self-consciousness and irony,” while his ex-student Emory lives “in the real” [p. 40]. What, for Saul, is the difference between these two states? Does Patsy also live “in the real”? Is Saul self-conscious because he is overly educated and highly neurotic? Or does he perceive something about himself and the people around him that is actually quite accurate? Is Saul suffering from what Freud called “ordinary unhappiness”—the most common human lot—or something worse?

5. What happens to Saul in the episode on pages 55–61? How does he arrive at the desire to have a child? What is the significance of the albino deer [pp. 57–58, 67]? Is the deer symbolic? Why does Gordy shoot it with an arrow [p. 79]? In his essay collection Burning Down the House, Baxter writes, “Bewilderment, in the moment before insight arrives—if it arrives—has at least two very attractive features. One is its relation to comedy. The other is its solitary stubbornness.” Does this statement help to explain what Saul experiences in this episode?

6. What makes Patsy so solid a character and so able to deal with Saul’s anxieties? Why is she able to be happy in Five Oaks?

7. To what degree does Saul’s inner drama dominate the novel? After the birth of Mary Esther he realizes, “It was himself he had a problem with. He just didn’t know what the problem was, although his therapist in Chicago had once told him that he suffered from ‘pointless remorse’ and ‘inappropriate longings.’” Saul suspects that being a parent will make his “typical despairs . . . look like luxuries to him” [p. 69]. Does this in fact happen? Does Saul learn to turn down the noise of his own consciousness?

8. “Politically and socially and ideologically, Saul had once felt pity and compassion and generosity toward the wretched of the earth. He still did, when he considered them as a class, and only when they appeared as individuals did they sometimes alarm him” [p. 72]. How does the novel illuminate this ethical dilemma? Does self-interest and the need to protect his family put an end to Saul’s brief commitment to people like Gordy? What should Saul have done about Gordy?

9. While Saul is ultra-articulate and has a kinship with words, Gordy is illiterate and often mute. Why is Baxter interested in this struggle between two characters with such different communication skills? Does this communication gap reflect a problem in American cultural life?

10. Gordy’s last name, Himmelman, means “heaven man.” Does Gordy become, in his undead state, an angel of sorts? Might we interpret his position of watcher as angel-like? Is he Saul’s conscience? Or is he a malevolent, angry ghost? Why do the high school kids react with hysteria to Gordy’s death? What is the nature of the “sightings” of Gordy?

11. Discuss Saul’s feeling that “Gordy was like Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s orphaned creature, made out of spare human parts, wandering around looking for love and wanting someone to notice him grunting and groaning, threatening to become a monster and then becoming an actual monster” [pp. 142–43]. Because Gordy is only able to express himself through violence, does he remain unknowable and unexplained? How does the Gordy plot reflect contemporary American teenaged culture?

12. As Howie leaves Saul’s house, he thinks disparagingly of Saul’s family as people who “would just trudge to work, to school, to day care, to the job, to retirement, to the cemetery, like little imaginary people on a little imaginary stage” [p. 265]. Is Howie a sociopath? Is he a benign and comic figure, or a disturbing one? Why does he enjoy telling stories (or lies) about himself and his life?

13. What insight does Gina provide into the mindset of the kids who decide to attack Saul? What are they thinking, what do they want, and what do they hope to achieve? Is it surprising that Saul’s way of dealing with their potential violence is to “adopt them as his own, such as they were, monsters of neglect and loneliness” [p. 285]? Saul provides a ritual—the burial and blessing of Gordy’s ashes; how do the kids react to this?

14. Discuss the idea of Gordy as something (or someone) to be deciphered. He is “mad in the USA” [p. 88], and his scribbled notes from class are difficult to interpret. Why does the picture of Mary Esther, and the assignment to “give her some words” provoke Gordy’s intrusion into Saul’s life [p. 89]? What is he looking for from Saul? Is his intention frightening, benign, or simply unknowable?

15. What are the distinguishing features of Baxter’s prose style? Choose a favorite passage or two to discuss, or consider the following sentences:
“The sky was habitually overcast, like a patient in need of therapy” [p. 68].
“Thinking of this, Saul sometimes imagined his father’s coronary thrombosis producing a traffic thrombosis, blocking the flow of vehicles for hours. His self-effacing father would have hated his own death for its public-nuisance value” [p. 23].
“Resignation was the great local spiritual specialty, resignation and a fleeting recklessness, a feverishly hypnotic and prideful death-in-life” [p. 232].

16. Which passages in the novel are the most humorous? What kinds of situations, comments, conversations or descriptions are funny? Is the comedy in the novel produced by characters, by the narrative voice, or by the plot?

17. As the novel ends, Saul and Patsy have another child, and Saul has a new career as “The Bloviator” in the local newspaper. Why does the story end with Saul’s meeting with the little girl selling lemonade?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2005

    excellent contemporary novel

    An excellent contemporary novel, both comic and serious, with psychological probing of its main characters. There are a couple of minor complaints some of the psychological analyses of minor characters don't really add much to the novel, and strike me as digressive but these don't detract from the novel's overall impact. I'd caution the would-be reader against reading the Kirkus Review, which includes a spoiler. Baxter's style, in this novel at least, reminds me strongly of John Cheever's fiction.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2005

    Great Book!

    I really enjoyed this book. Although it did not have a conventional ending (none of his books do), the story was definitely well written. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a realistic tale of life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2005

    not so great

    It was just ok. We read it for our bookclub, and nobody cared for it that much.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2004

    Lame Ending!!!

    I really liked this book- but i needed a much better ending!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2004

    The Five Oaks Golem

    Every teacher has misgivings about students they wished they could have helped more.Imagine the consternation that would result from a student committing suicide on your front lawn! This is the scenario played out in the novel,'Saul and Patsy' by Charles Baxter, the 2002 National Book Award finalist for 'The Feast of Love'. An unlikely couple, Saul, a neurotic Jew, and Patsy, a middle-American Protestant, marry and settle down in the Midwestern town of Five Oaks where their favorite amusement is playing Scrabble. Saul teaches high-school English while Patsy works in a bank. Their idyllic life is spoiled when a student in Saul's remedial class, Gordon Himmelman, starts stalking the family,now including baby Emily Marie (E.M). Despite moving to a new home, the couple find Gordy standing in their yard, looking into the sky with blank, vacant eyes. Saul likens Gordy to a Jewish'Golem', a soulless monster, while Patsy calls him a zombie. One day, Gordy destroys Saul's beehives; another time,he brings a handgun and fires it into the air. Instead of reporting the incident to the police, Saul, the guilt-ridden Jew, merely takes Gordy home. From this moment on, Gordy is a constant presence in their lives. Saul and Patsy become used to him, when abruptly, Gordy shoots himself in the mouth, committing suicide. Saul is suffused with remorse, unable to love Patsy in the intense way he did before. 'Something precious to him felt trashed', he felt. Later, he thinks,'He was offering himself to me for adoption. .But I didn't want him. I couldn't take him'. Gordy's death resonates throughout the community. Saul is held responsible. High-schoolers dress like Gordy and stand in Saul's yard as the teenager used to do. The novel comes to a climax when a group of 'Himmels' as the teenagers call themselves, storm into Saul's yard on Halloween night, intent on avenging the hapless boy's death. Finally, Saul stops temporizing , defuses the situation and resolves the doubts about his own existence. In this novel, Baxter hones in on his characters directly, juxtaposing Jewish mysticism with everyday Midwestern life. He contrasts Saul's urban Eastern angst with the more tempered outlook of Patsy and people of Five Oaks with stunning results.

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