Charles Baxter, short-story writer and novelist, is one of the great treasures of the American Midwest. His previous novel, Feast of Love(2000), was not only a critical success, earning a National Book Award nomination, but also a commercial success, bringing Baxter a much wider readership for his work. Likewise, Saul and Patsy has found favor with both critical and popular audiences.
For his main characters, Baxter returns to several of his earlier short stories, including “Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” from Through the Safety Net (1985); “Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant” fromA Relative Stranger (1990); and “Saul and Patsy Are in Labor,” fromBelievers (1997). In this novel, Saul and Patsy outgrow the boundaries of the short stories that contained them into fully developed characters in their own rights.
Baxter reports that he drew on his own experiences as a high school teacher in tiny Pinconning, Michigan, in the late 1960’s to create Five Oaks and its inhabitants. In particular, he recalls a colleague, a Jewish teacher who felt himself in the middle of nowhere. A similar sense of isolation pervades the novel; both Saul and Patsy are outsiders in Five Oaks. The side stories of Saul’s family also suggest the isolation of contemporary existence; yet all the characters of the novel struggle with the redemptive potential of love.
The book opens early in Saul and Patsy Bernstein’s marriage. The two, both of whom are from the East Coast, met at Northwestern University. Saul, a Jew from Baltimore, has given up a good job in Chicago to become a high school teacher in the small backwater town of Five Oaks, Michigan, because he idealistically wants to make a statement against corporate America. Saul is a somewhat dark character, prone to melancholy and discontent. Patsy, a former Episcopalian, works as a bank loan officer. A dancer, Patsy seems to live more fully in her body and in the moment than does Saul.
The couple rent a farmhouse on Whitefeather Road. That Saul and Patsy are passionately in love with each other is patently clear; even a simple game of Scrabble ends up in lovemaking. That Saul and Patsy are out of their element in the rural Midwest is just as clear. Although Patsy superficially seems better adjusted to her life in Five Oaks, neither she nor Saul knows how to speak the language of the culture in which they find themselves, nor do the townspeople have any understanding of them. When their nearest neighbor, Mrs. O’Neill, invites them to her house, she asks Saul to examine her garage so that she can surreptitiously ask Patsy if Jews eat cookies.
Such instances rankle Saul. When, while driving, he sees an old man staring at him, Saul is convinced that the man harbors anti-Semitic sentiments, and he makes a rude gesture. This is evidence of Saul’s inability to read his surroundings; only later does he discover that the man suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and has no idea even of where he is. Although the incident seems to speak to Saul’s paranoia, by the end of the book his suspicions have been largely confirmed.
Early in the book, a near-tragedy further reveals the gap between the Bernsteins and their neighbors. One night, driving home drunk from a party thrown by another high school teacher, the couple crash their car, rendering it undrivable. They walk to a nearby farmhouse for help and there find one of Saul’s former students, Emory McPhee, and his young wife, Anne. Saul gave Emory a “D” in his class, and this grade, along with a general lack of ambition, leads Emory to leave school. In this encounter, Saul recognizes once again the gulf that separates him from the people of the town; he understands in himself “the lagoon of self-consciousness and irony.” Seeing Emory and Anne in their home forces Saul to consider his own discontent with life: “This was like Schopenhauer arriving at the door with a big suitcase, settling down for a long stay in the brain.”
Shortly thereafter, Saul has a dream in which he is pregnant. He awakens, takes Patsy’s motorcycle for a drive, and sees an albino deer. This is his first sighting of the deer, which becomes a mystical sign throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, the moment is fraught with significance, although Saul cannot even identify what that significance is. After returning to his home, he...
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