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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy, a rich, complex, deeply moving novel about the arcs and pitches of event and emotion that shape the lives of a young couple. In the two years since they were married, nothing matters more to Saul than his loving, and satisfying, relationship with Patsy. Even though they have ended up in the small town of Five Oaks, Michigan, Saul and Patsy’s life together is an idyll of domestic romance. At least for a while. With the birth of their daughter, Saul feels envious of the attention Patsy lavishes on her. At the same time, his attention is being drawn away from home by one of his students—a deeply troubled boy who has become darkly obsessed with Saul’s life. The strange outcome of the boy’s obsession leads Saul to question everything he has assumed about himself and his relationship with Patsy. Saul and Patsy brilliantly illuminates the hidden corners of both hearth and heart.
Questions For Discussion
1. How does the town of Five Oaks, Michigan figure as a character in the novel? How is it a particularly Midwestern town? How do the various town folk-whom Saul refers to as "rural Gentiles, connoisseurs of rifles, violence, and piety"-play into the narrative? Harold the barber, the local high school teachers and students, Mrs. O'Neil the lonely neighbor, the various students, Susan the bank teller, Brenda Gordy's aunt?
2. Saul and Patsy are definitely outsiders in this small Midwestern town. What sets Saul apart from the other inhabitants? Does his Jewishness play a role, or is this largely in Saul's imagination? By the end, are they Midwesterners as well?
3. Saul views himself as a missionary, "bringing education and the higher enlightenments to rural benighted adolescents." What exactly is a missionary? Do you think Saul is one? Later in the novel when asked if he is going to stay in the Midwest, Saul responds, "I have to. I'm on a mission. We are." What is this mission? Is it ultimately to save himself or others? And from what?
4. Discuss the relationship between Saul and Patsy. Compare and contrast them. Why is theirs such a fulfilled and satisfied relationship despite their different views on love? "In Saul, love took the form of desperation-to-share." For Patsy, "she might have loved anybody, but it had turned out to be this man…there was certainly no logic to it." What determines and then later threatens to undermine their marriage? What is the author saying of love? Describe the other marriages in the book, that of Saul's parents, and the McPhees.
5. How does having a child transform Saul and Patsy's life? Do they change individually and/or as a couple? What do they learn about each other in the process of accepting a third person into their world, and growing from a couple into a family?
6. After meeting the McPhees, Saul "began to be obsessed with happiness" and realized "compared to others, he was, except for his marriage, actually and truly unhappy." He becomes preoccupied with the McPhees and their happiness without really knowing much about their lives. Why the jealousy and obsession?
7. Saul and Patsy overflows with references to written words. Saul teaches writing at the local high school and later writes a newspaper column. Saul and Patsy adore Scrabble and crossword puzzles. Various authors are referred to and quoted. Saul writes on Patsy's body. Gordy leaves notes for Saul. What is the importance of the written word in the novel? Give examples of the success and the failure of words in the novel.
8. Discuss the theme of betrayal in Saul and Patsy. What types of betrayal occur? What are the causes and consequences of them? Are the betrayals justified? Is anyone innocent? As a teacher, does Saul betray Gordy? As a brother, does Howie betray Saul? Does Patsy betray Delia?
9. Does Gordy Himmelman represent or symbolize something larger than himself, a troubled teen, to Saul and to the novel as a whole? What? Why is he obsessed with Saul, and why does he commit suicide in front of him?
10. What does Saul learn about himself and his relationship with Patsy and his family through his experiences with Gordy? Through his experiences in Five Oaks? What does Patsy learn?
11. Why do you think the adolescents of Five Oaks react the way they do after Gordy Himmelman's death? Is it indicative of Five Oaks, the Midwest, our society as a whole? Do you think the reaction is realistic?
12. Discuss the role and importance of the media and television in the novel. Is the author making a social commentary on the media and its omnipresence?
13. At various points throughout Saul and Patsy, characters invade other characters' privacy. Give some specific instances of characters trespassing or spying on other characters. What is really going on in these situations?
14. Discuss the significance of the conclusion. Why does the novel end this way? What do you think is in the future for Saul and Patsy?
Sherwood Anderson,Winesburg, Ohio; Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love; Charles Baxter, Through the Safety Net; Jane Hamilton, Disobedience; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Patricia Henley, In the River Sweet; Richard Russo, Empire Falls; Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety; William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.