Excerpted from Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2003 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
Q: Who are Saul and Patsy?A: They're a fairly ordinary couple who are plunged into extraordinary circumstances. (That, I once heard, was the recipe that Hitchcock used for his movies.) Saul is Jewish, and Patsy is not; they find themselves deep in the heart of the American Midwest, and by a sudden turn-of-events related to one of his students, Gordy Himmelman, Saul finds himself at the center of a growing community-wide hysteria.Q: What sort of hysteria?A: Someone has died, and people start to think Saul is responsible. (In a very, very small way, Saul is responsible, but not in the way that everyone thinks.)Q: Saul and Patsy seem like familiar characters. Have you ever written about them before?A: Three times. They first appeared in a story of mine called "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan." That was in Through the Safety Net, a collection of my stories which came out in 1985. I thought I had killed them off at the end of that story (they drive off the road, and their car flips), but I was wrong. They reappeared in "Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant," in A Relative Stranger in 1990, and they popped up again in "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor," in Believers. The first story led to the second because a very large woman came up to me at a literary gathering around 1986 and grabbed my lapel and started to shake me, saying, "You have the nerve to kill off that nice couple!" I was frightened and said, "They aren't dead." She demanded that I prove it, so I wrote the second story. As for this book, I decided to get them out of my system, so I used the first three stories—much rewritten—as scaffolding for the novel.Q: Your fiction allows readers to get to know each character intimately. Saul and Patsy feel like old friends. Is this intentional?A: Well, I've lived with them for so long that I know quite a lot about them by now—Saul's self-consciousness, his enthusiasms; Patsy's beauty and her irritability—and I think I was able to get most of those details into a book. Readers often want characters to be both recognizable and a bit strange. The recognition allows familiarity, and the strangeness permits a feeling of discovery as the novel goes on.Q: Did you discover anything about Saul as you wrote the novel?A: Yes. He was more courageous than I thought he would be. He refused to be terrorized.Q: How so?A: Saul has a certain fatalism about not being in the mainstream anyway, so when people start to go after him, he's not surprised. He figures he's usually by himself anyway. It's why—not to give the story away—he ends up as a writer of editorials. His version of what happened to Gordy Himmelman is so subversive that they can't even broadcast his interview on the local news. And then he sees that the most troubled part of the community consists of the young adults and adolescents, and he decides that instead of yelling at them, or being scared (which is what they'd like), he'll talk to them and be tough with them and explain to them what a blessing is for, which works, at least for a while. He's not a passive suffering type. Sometimes a person has to take some action, and he does. You can't do much with passive characters in fiction except make them suffer, and I didn't want to do that with Saul.Q: What about Patsy?A: Beneath that placid exterior, she sometimes feels desperate. Also, I never thought that a dancer would ever want to work in a bank, but she does.Q: Several characters in THE FEAST OF LOVE and SAUL AND PATSY suffer from insomnia. Why is that? Are you an insomniac?A: I was, until my doctor got busy with the prescriptions. Anyway, insomnia is always a good dramatic device, because you can get to the bottom of a character's soul in the middle of the night more easily and more dramatically than you can, usually, during the day. The soul is more exposed during a sleepless night, more likely to show itself. Feast of Love was organized around that principle, and I exported that principle for certain crucial sections of Saul and Patsy: Saul's decision to become a father, Saul and Patsy’s worries about their welfare, (Saul’s brother) Howie's late-night bogus confessions.Q: Describe Gordy Himmelman.A: There are a lot of kids like him around. He has attention-deficit disorder, and he's under-parented, and abused, and by the time he enters the story, he's in that gray area between adolescent kid and monster. I was thinking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein when I wrote Gordy: Dr. Frankenstein's creature doesn't actually turn into a monster until he's denied the love that he craves. Also, his creator refuses to acknowledge him. Gordy doesn't exactly go on a violent rampage, but he wants something from Saul, and he can't say what it is, and because of that, Saul doesn't know what to give him. Besides, Gordy starts waving a gun around. You don't want kids like that hanging around your household.Q: How does he ultimately influence the town from which he felt so alienated?A: He haunts the place. I've never written a real ghost story, but Saul & Patsy has certain elements of a ghost story, with mass hysteria about sightings mixed in there with mass hallucination, all at the middle school and high school level, and if you ask about Gordy's influence, I'd say that maybe this community can't go on treating its wayward adolescents as if they were invisible anymore. This is a lesson we ought to have learned by now after Columbine, but maybe we haven't. But I'm not a sociologist. I just write stories.Q: The Midwest features prominently in your fiction, and Saul and Patsy are of course greatly influenced by their own situation, inadvertently settling in Five Oaks, Michigan. Why this place? What does it mean to them and to you?A: I've noticed that people who live on the East Coast or West Coast almost never apologize for living where they've settled. But in the Midwest, quite a few people seem to feel sheepish about where they've put up stakes, and that's interesting, dramatically, because if you're alienated from the landscape that surrounds you, and you feel like a stranger there, you're likely to start making certain moves in your life either toward accommodation or attack. Saul thinks he's alienated from what surrounds him, but he doesn't know real alienation until he meets up with Gordy Himmelman. Besides, Saul at first thinks he'll be the victim of anti-Semitism, and then he believes that he's fully assimilated, and then he starts to receive the crank phone calls. Anyway, this is the landscape that I know pretty well by now.Q: Early in your novel Patsy finds Saul on the roof of their home, hoping to see "a view." She tells him, "It's scary up there, honey. It's a view for adults, not for kids. Kids couldn't handle it." Explain this sentiment.A: I'll try to. Kids are impressed by the monumental. You show them the ocean, or the Rocky Mountains, or Manhattan, and they know that it's worth looking at. But so much of our American landscape doesn't seem particularly noteworthy—it seems bland—and kids, looking at it, don't see anything. They see something flat, and a few trees, and fields. My job as a writer is to see stories where other people don't see anything. One French commentator said about Feast of Love, more or less, Who would have thought that there would be love stories in this banal Midwestern city? That's scary, too, that pronouncement.Q: Why is that scary?A: It isn't, really, unless you're scared by people who think there are no stories except in the great capitals of Europe and America. If you look at any life hard enough, or long enough, it *will* become interesting. Anyone's struggles with existence are interesting. Saul is a kind of a stand-in for me that way. What Saul does is to see something going on where everyone else would see . . . well, nothing. Saul has a habit of bringing his college metaphysical categories to his life: fullness, emptiness, absence, presence. They infect his thinking. But he assumes (as Patsy does not) that every life has its own story, and by making that assumption, he creates stories around him.Q: Your last book, THE FEAST OF LOVE, was met with terrific critical and commercial success. What do you think appealed most to readers?A: I thought the book was made up of mostly ordinary lives that had been polished up a bit for storytelling purposes. The book is a kind of romance, in the old sense of that word, a dream-book, and I think a lot of readers found themselves in it, or at least found people they recognized in it, and it wasn't as if you had to ask what the book was about: it was about love, some of the crazier aspects of it. One reviewer asked where the mature adult relationships were; well, there weren't any, except for Harry and Esther, because it wasn't that kind of book. It was about people who were slightly crazed. And readers seemed to like Chloe quite a bit. I still get letters about her. I liked her, too.Q: What's next for Charlie Baxter?A: I'd like to write a novel about a psychopath. No one would expect that from me.
1. The novel opens with Saul and Patsy playing Scrabble in their rented house. What does this scene tell us about them? What is unusual or interesting about the ways in which Baxter introduces his characters in the opening chapter? What details make this chapter so effective as an entry point into the novel?
2. Saul decides to become a high school history teacher so that he can undertake “the great project of undoing the dumbness that’s been done” [p. 8]. Does his experience as a teacher show him that he can have a positive effect on this widespread cultural “dumbness”? What makes him come to the realization that “some things you can’t help; some things you can’t save, and you’re better off not trying” [p. 91], and is his frustration justified?
3. Saul’s mother warns him that life in Michigan is “nothing . . . you’re living in nothingness” [pp. 26–27]. Why is Five Oaks both frightening and interesting to Saul, and how does his Jewishness shape his perception of the place? One thing that intrigues Saul about the Midwest is its indifference. How does he experience this indifference? Does this include moral indifference? Is the anti-Semitism he perceives everywhere just a result of paranoia?
4. Saul lives in “the lagoon of self-consciousness and irony,” while his ex-student Emory lives “in the real” [p. 40]. What, for Saul, is the difference between these two states? Does Patsy also live “in the real”? Is Saul self-conscious because he is overly educated and highly neurotic? Or does he perceive something about himself and the people around him that is actually quite accurate? Is Saul suffering from what Freud called “ordinary unhappiness”—the most common human lot—or something worse?
5. What happens to Saul in the episode on pages 55–61? How does he arrive at the desire to have a child? What is the significance of the albino deer [pp. 57–58, 67]? Is the deer symbolic? Why does Gordy shoot it with an arrow [p. 79]? In his essay collection Burning Down the House, Baxter writes, “Bewilderment, in the moment before insight arrives—if it arrives—has at least two very attractive features. One is its relation to comedy. The other is its solitary stubbornness.” Does this statement help to explain what Saul experiences in this episode?
6. What makes Patsy so solid a character and so able to deal with Saul’s anxieties? Why is she able to be happy in Five Oaks?
7. To what degree does Saul’s inner drama dominate the novel? After the birth of Mary Esther he realizes, “It was himself he had a problem with. He just didn’t know what the problem was, although his therapist in Chicago had once told him that he suffered from ‘pointless remorse’ and ‘inappropriate longings.’” Saul suspects that being a parent will make his “typical despairs . . . look like luxuries to him” [p. 69]. Does this in fact happen? Does Saul learn to turn down the noise of his own consciousness?
8. “Politically and socially and ideologically, Saul had once felt pity and compassion and generosity toward the wretched of the earth. He still did, when he considered them as a class, and only when they appeared as individuals did they sometimes alarm him” [p. 72]. How does the novel illuminate this ethical dilemma? Does self-interest and the need to protect his family put an end to Saul’s brief commitment to people like Gordy? What should Saul have done about Gordy?
9. While Saul is ultra-articulate and has a kinship with words, Gordy is illiterate and often mute. Why is Baxter interested in this struggle between two characters with such different communication skills? Does this communication gap reflect a problem in American cultural life?
10. Gordy’s last name, Himmelman, means “heaven man.” Does Gordy become, in his undead state, an angel of sorts? Might we interpret his position of watcher as angel-like? Is he Saul’s conscience? Or is he a malevolent, angry ghost? Why do the high school kids react with hysteria to Gordy’s death? What is the nature of the “sightings” of Gordy?
11. Discuss Saul’s feeling that “Gordy was like Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s orphaned creature, made out of spare human parts, wandering around looking for love and wanting someone to notice him grunting and groaning, threatening to become a monster and then becoming an actual monster” [pp. 142–43]. Because Gordy is only able to express himself through violence, does he remain unknowable and unexplained? How does the Gordy plot reflect contemporary American teenaged culture?
12. As Howie leaves Saul’s house, he thinks disparagingly of Saul’s family as people who “would just trudge to work, to school, to day care, to the job, to retirement, to the cemetery, like little imaginary people on a little imaginary stage” [p. 265]. Is Howie a sociopath? Is he a benign and comic figure, or a disturbing one? Why does he enjoy telling stories (or lies) about himself and his life?
13. What insight does Gina provide into the mindset of the kids who decide to attack Saul? What are they thinking, what do they want, and what do they hope to achieve? Is it surprising that Saul’s way of dealing with their potential violence is to “adopt them as his own, such as they were, monsters of neglect and loneliness” [p. 285]? Saul provides a ritual—the burial and blessing of Gordy’s ashes; how do the kids react to this?
14. Discuss the idea of Gordy as something (or someone) to be deciphered. He is “mad in the USA” [p. 88], and his scribbled notes from class are difficult to interpret. Why does the picture of Mary Esther, and the assignment to “give her some words” provoke Gordy’s intrusion into Saul’s life [p. 89]? What is he looking for from Saul? Is his intention frightening, benign, or simply unknowable?
15. What are the distinguishing features of Baxter’s prose style? Choose a favorite passage or two to discuss, or consider the following sentences:
“The sky was habitually overcast, like a patient in need of therapy” [p. 68].
“Thinking of this, Saul sometimes imagined his father’s coronary thrombosis producing a traffic thrombosis, blocking the flow of vehicles for hours. His self-effacing father would have hated his own death for its public-nuisance value” [p. 23].
“Resignation was the great local spiritual specialty, resignation and a fleeting recklessness, a feverishly hypnotic and prideful death-in-life” [p. 232].
16. Which passages in the novel are the most humorous? What kinds of situations, comments, conversations or descriptions are funny? Is the comedy in the novel produced by characters, by the narrative voice, or by the plot?
17. As the novel ends, Saul and Patsy have another child, and Saul has a new career as “The Bloviator” in the local newspaper. Why does the story end with Saul’s meeting with the little girl selling lemonade?