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.
About the Author
Charles Baxter is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the story collections Gryphon, Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. The stories “Bravery” and “Charity,” which appear in There’s Something I Want You to Do, were included in Best American Short Stories. Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Date of Birth:May 13, 1947
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
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 knowsmashed 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 thereI 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.
Reading Group Guide
A New York Times Notable Book and a
San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller
“Baxter at his best. He is an observer and writer of prodigious gifts. . . . A disquieting, thoroughly enjoyable and unforgettable novel.” —The Seattle Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about this extraordinary novel.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is lightweight fluff, masquerading as something deeper. Baxter violates the first rule of fiction: show, don't tell. His main character, Saul, is an urban Jew who takes up a teaching job in "Middle America" (Michigan), and discovers that maybe people are more multi-faceted than he might have at first suspected. Well, duh!It's shallow stuff, with characters as stage props and scenery as mere backdrop.
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.
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.
It was just ok. We read it for our bookclub, and nobody cared for it that much.
I really liked this book- but i needed a much better ending!
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.