"Saul and Patsy"
(Reviewed by Thom Didato NOV 12, 2003)
A mistake is made quite early on in Charles Baxter's latest book, Saul and Patsy. In fact, it occurs before the story even starts. On the book's cover, the title reads "Saul and Patsy: A Novel." It is this imposed "novel" classification that will undoubtedly confound the critics, some of whom may be quick to disparage the work for its failure to fit nicely within the rigidly defined distinctions between the "novel" and "short story" formats. Nevertheless, to do so would be a grave injustice, not only to the work, but also to the potential reader's enjoyment. Coming off the highly successful and National Book Award nominated, Feast of Love, Baxter's latest hardcover does not go for the jugular, as so many have anticipated. Instead, like his other great books, Saul and Patsy simmers and seethes with both humorous charm and disturbingly real appeal.
Perhaps the publisher was eager to provide a "novel" classification given the original format for Saul and Patsy's inspiration. Over two decade ago, Baxter wrote the first of what would be three Saul and Patsy short stories. In fact, at conclusion of the first, "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan," the main characters' fates appeared forever sealed. Not so! Thanks in part to one angry reader who protested directly to the author, catching him off guard and causing Baxter to immediately deny their fate. Over the next decade and a half, Baxter gave his readers two more tales about this charming couple who have seemingly fled urban society to the rather mundane small town of Fair Oaks, Michigan. At first, Saul, an angst-ridden non-practicing Jew from the Maryland suburbs who has taken a high school teaching job in an attempt to "rid the world of stupidity," has difficulty with the complacency and boredom of the endlessly flat land that surrounds him. Of course, he won't admit this to his nagging mother:
Saul listened to his mother go on for five minutes, and then he stopped her.
"Ma," he said. "We're staying."
"Staying? Staying for what? For how long?"
"For as long as it takes."
"As long as what takes? Honey, you'll never have a normal life as long as you stay there."
"Ah, now you're trying to trap me. I know your tricks. You want me to say restaurants and concerts and bookstores, but I won't."
"They don't have those things here."
" I didn't say it!" She waited. "I worry about you, living on that dirt road. Earning such a lousy salary. Don't think I don't admire your wonderful idealism. Everyone in the family admires your wonderful idealism, Saul, you know that. But it's like you've fallen into a cave."
"Now that could be true."
"So move out."
"I'm starting to like it."
"What's to like? Dirt? Fields? Sheep?"
"They don't have sheep here. No, I'll tell you what there is to like about it, which you would discover if you ever came to visit."
"The indifference. Ma, I never lived with indifference before."
"Indifference? It's a terrible thing, kiddo."
"How would you know? You've never lived with it. Imagine people not caring that much what you do. Imagine people leaving you alone."
"You're guessing. When did people ever leave you alone? When did they ever leave me alone?"
Rest assured, Saul is not left alone for long. Soon Patsy becomes pregnant with their first child. Then one of Saul's students, the troubled teen of Gordy Himmelman, literally becomes a fixture on their front lawn. For a while, Gordy serves as an almost a daily warning beacon.
Not that Saul's Mom hasn't already explained the other potential danger her son faces:
"Honey," she said, "what am I going to say to my friends about you?"
"You can say, Saul and Patsy are getting comfortable in Michigan."
"All right, Saul. I give up. You want me to say that, that's what I'll say. Pour your life down the drain, if that's your ambition. I accept it. But let me tell you something, my friend. It's not a normal life you're leading out there."
"Okay, Ma. I'll bite, what is it?"
"It's nothing, and that's my last word on the subject. You're living in nothingness. It'll eat you up. As anyone with a brain in his head can see. But I won't interfere. Maybe nothingness suits you."
Here is where the magic of Baxter's writing, his unique skill at observing human action and interaction, really expands upon the original Saul and Patsy stories. Not necessarily in terms of traditional plot or rising action (though this is provided thanks in part to the immortal impact of what comes to be coined as "Himmelism"), but rather, through the soul searching and character development of both Saul and Patsy. Their lives unfold for the reader's pleasure: Saul seeks answers to the universe on the back of a book of matches, the emotional impact of motherhood hits Patsy, and both characters come to grips with the personal limitations that affect nearly al lthe inter-relationships here -- sexual and familial.
Much like the episodic nature of his other works, including Feast of Love, Baxter weaves much more of a philosophical tale than a plot-driven one. But it is a tale worth telling, and well worth reading. As an author, Baxter possesses a unique gift of making real life rather interesting without sensationalizing it. Therein lies Saul and Patsy's success, as a book with an indelible culminating effect - providing a genuine revelation for both the characters within and, quite likely, for the reader as well.
Yes, to be honest, there are some tangents to the S&P saga that fail to be fully developed: Saul's deceiving and potentially disturbed brother; or worse yet, a late-in-the-game and somewhat sudden shift into the mind and world of Gina, an apparent classmate of Gordy's. But even with all this hodgepodge of humanity, at the conclusion of the book, when Saul pulls his Chevy up to a lemonade stand for a five dollar glass of wisdom and rock with the powers to heal a broken heart, the reader gets the feeling that things are going to be OK. Granted, nothing is for sure, but then again, sometimes nothingness suits you.
- Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Saul and Patsy at DenverPost.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Harmony of the World (1984
- Through the Safety Net (1985)
- First Light (1987)
- A Relative Stranger (1990)
- Shadow Play (1993)
- Believers (1997)
- The Feast of Love (2000)
- Saul and Patsy (September 2003)
- The Soul Thief (Feb 2008)
- Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (January 2011)
- Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997)
- Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and Writing Life (June 2001) (with Peter Turchi)
- The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007)
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- The official Web site for Charles Baxter
- Bold Type interview with Charles Baxter
- The Atlantic interview with Charles Baxter
- Beatrice Interview on The Believers
- MostlyFiction.com review of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories
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About the Author:
Charles Baxter was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Macalester College, in Saint Paul. After completing graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he taught for several years at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1989, he moved to the Department of English at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor and its MFA program. He now teaches at the University of Minnesota.