Poor Charles Baxter, doomed to be forever thought of as a writer's writer. The languidly plotted Saul and Patsy
hardly promises to be his long-awaited breakout novel. It's just too quiet. But for those of us who fervently admire Baxter's prose, that's a selling point. In this tale of a Midwestern marriage, there's lots of time and space for the author to show off his incisive style, studded with the kind of subtle observations that make you stop, laugh, and then feel oddly lanced somewhere in the neighborhood of the soul.
Saul Bernstein has become a high school teacher because he feels a need "to contribute to what he called 'the great project of undoing the dumbness that's been done.'" He and his wife Patsy live in small-town Michigan, where their "love for each other had created a magic circle around themselves that outsiders could not penetrate. No one who had ever met them knew what made the two of them tick; the whole arrangement looked mildly fraudulent." There's a glitch in this idyll, though. One of Saul's students, a mildly retarded boy named Gordy, takes to haunting their house, maybe with malicious intent, maybe not. Gordy hangs around, Saul and Patsy have a baby, and then finally a crisis provokes Saul to decide what kind of man he'd like to be. The novel is, in the end, a portrait not of a marriage, but of an ambivalent, evasive, very funny man. Along the way, we get to know Saul's fed-up wife, his fraudulent brother, and his libidinous mother, who makes this observation of Saul: "As a father, he exhibited great tenderness, which had a touch of vanity in it." It's a classic Baxter aside, at first mildly funny, then barbed with the truth. --Claire Dederer
From 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.
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