Saul and Patsy
Charles Baxter's new novel, SAUL AND PATSY, may be the longest short story ever written.
Based on two of his previous stories --- "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" from THROUGH THE SAFETY NET and "Saul and Patsy are Pregnant" from A RELATIVE STRANGER --- the novel greatly expounds the title characters' lives and further explores themes of irony and sentimentality across more than 300 pages, yet by virtue of its vivid characters, incredibly targeted prose and insights into married life, SAUL AND PATSY asks to be read like a short story --- in one sitting. It lacks any suspense, but it is still hard to put down. And reading that last page is akin to saying good-bye to old college friends, who stopped by for an all-too-short visit.
Saul Bernstein, a Jewish history teacher originally from Baltimore, and Patsy Carlson, a dancer from Chicago, have recently moved to the town of Five Oaks, Michigan --- one of the many "dusty, luckless midwestern cities tucked away inside the folds of the map" --- out of Saul's youthful idealism: he wants to bring high education to the plains of rural America, to reverse the simpleness of middle-class life. It's an unrealistic, outsized, almost elitist dream, but it's also one of the few things about which he feels sincerely. Yet, as a well-educated Jew in a small midwestern town, he feels hopelessly out of place and unable to relate to his students or even his neighbors.
For the novel's first chapter, Baxter reworks and updates "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan," which ended with an ambiguous car crash, leaving readers with no sign of whether or not the couple survived. In fact, they walk away more or less unscathed to build a home together and begin a family, gradually growing increasingly, if not perfectly, comfortable in their adopted hometown.
When Saul is assigned to teach a remedial writing course, a student named Gordy Himmelman develops an odd fixation on him and Patsy, yet his intentions are unknowable, his motivation a mystery. "On Gordy, blankness had a certain eloquence," Baxter writes. "The boy was profoundly blank." Yet he passively propels the novel's minimal plot, first as a curious stalker who stands under a tree in their front yard for hours at a time, then as a ghost who inspires rebellion in the town's susceptible teenagers.
As this story unfolds, Baxter also introduces us to Saul and Patsy's friends and neighbors --- the McPhees, a couple just out of high school who seem to thrive on "midwestern earnestness"; Saul's widowed mother, who has a scandalous affair with a younger man; and his handsome brother Howie, a tech millionaire whose life may not be as blessed as Saul assumes.
All of these characters pop in and out of Saul and Patsy's life, but the one thing that remains constant is its setting. SAUL AND PATSY is a Midwestern pastoral: Baxter evokes a Michigan whose flatness holds a "sensual loneliness" and whose cities are losing their personalities through the ups and downs of the industries that created them. Like Terre Haute, Duluth, Flint, Grand Forks, or dozens of other similar --- and actual --- municipalities, Five Oaks is one of those "cities you had heard of but couldn't quite picture, cities that called nothing in particular to mind except for an eagerness to be larger and more prosperous than they were, and an all-consuming late-stage boosterism that was mostly insecurity and worry masked by bluster." Even as Saul and Patsy get comfortable in Michigan, Michigan is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable place to live.
Even though he intends this novel to register on a state and even regional level, Baxter maintains the story's focus on its title characters and on their "plain old married love." It has an amiably small, domestic scope, which certainly is no limitation, especially in the hands of a writer who is as fearlessly playful and fiercely intelligent as Baxter. Rather, SAUL AND PATSY is wonderfully and magically life-size.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 23, 2011
Saul and Patsy
- Publication Date: April 12, 2005
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Vintage
- ISBN-10: 0375709169
- ISBN-13: 9780375709166