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  • Written by Charles Baxter
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Written by Charles BaxterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charles Baxter

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42761-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Five Oaks, Michigan is not exactly where Saul and Patsy meant to end up. Both from the East Coast, they met in college, fell in love, and settled down to married life in the Midwest. Saul is Jewish and a compulsively inventive worrier; Patsy is gentile and cheerfully pragmatic. On Saul’s initiative (and to his continual dismay) they have moved to this small town–a place so devoid of irony as to be virtually “a museum of earlier American feelings”–where he has taken a job teaching high school.

Soon this brainy and guiltily happy couple will find children have become a part of their lives, first their own baby daughter and then an unloved, unlovable boy named Gordy Himmelman. It is Gordy who will throw Saul and Patsy’s lives into disarray with an inscrutable act of violence. As timely as a news flash yet informed by an immemorial understanding of human character, Saul and Patsy is a genuine miracle.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

One

About a year after they had rented the farmhouse with loose brown aluminum siding on Whitefeather Road, Saul began glaring out the west window after dinner into the unappeasable darkness that pressed against the glass, as if he were angry at the flat uncultivated farmland for being farmland instead of glass and cement. "No sane Jew," he said, "ever lived on a dirt road." Patsy reminded him of Poland, Russia, and the nineteenth century. Then she pointed down at the Scrabble board and told him to play. To spite her, he spelled out "axiom" over a triple-word score, for forty-two points. "That was totally different," Saul said, shaking his head. "Completely different. That was when everyone but the landowners lived on dirt roads. It was a democracy of dirt roads, the nineteenth century." Patsy was clutching her bottle of root beer with one hand and arranging the letters on her slate with the other. Her legs were crossed in the chair, and the bottle was positioned against the instep of her right foot. She looked up at him and smiled. He couldn't help it? he smiled back. She was so beautiful, she could make him copy her gestures without his meaning to.

"We're not landowners either," she said. "We're renters. Oh, I forgot to tell you. I had to go into the basement this afternoon for a screwdriver, and I noticed that there's a mouse in the trap downstairs."

"Is it dead?"

"Oh, sure." She nodded. "It looks quite dead. You know--smashed back, slightly open mouth, and bulging eyes. I'll spare you the full description. You'll see the whole scene soon enough when you go down there--I didn't want to throw it out myself."

"I did the dishes," Saul complained, sitting up, running his fingers through his hair.

"I could throw the mouse out," Patsy said, leaning back, taking a swig and giving him another obliging smile. "I can now, and I could have then." She straightened her leg and placed her foot against his ankle, and she raised her eyebrows as an ironic courtesy. "But the truth is, those little critters give me the whimwhams, and I'd rather not. I'd rather you did it, Saul. Just, you know, as a favor to me. You do it, my man, and there might be something in it for you."

"What? What would be in it for me?"

"The trick in negotiations," she said, "is not to make promises too soon. Why don't you just do it as a favor to me? A sort of little gratuitous act of kindness? One of them guys?"

He stood up, shaking the letters on the Scrabble board, and clomped in his white socks to the kitchen, where the flashlight was stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet that was so weak that the flashlight kept sliding down to the floor, though it was only halfway there now. "I didn't say you had to do it instantly," Patsy shouted. "This very minute. You could wait until the game is over."

"Well, if you didn't want it thrown out now, you shouldn't have mentioned it. Besides, I can't concentrate," Saul said, half to himself as he flicked the flashlight off and on, "thinking about that dead mouse." The batteries were so low that the light from the bulb was foggy and brown. He opened the door to the basement, fanning stale air, and stared down the steps into the darkness that smelled of must and heating oil. He didn't like the basement. At night, in bed, he thought he heard crying from down there, ancestral accusations. "You'll do anything to beat me at Scrabble," Saul said aloud to himself. "This is gamesmanship, honey. Don't tell me otherwise."

He snapped on the wall switch, and the shadows of the steps sawtoothed themselves in front of him. "I really don't like this," he said, walking down the stairs, a sliver from the banister leaping into the heel of his hand. "This is not my idea of a good time." He heard Patsy say something consoling and inaudible.

On his left were the wooden shelves once meant for storing preserves. On these shelves, mason jars, empty and gathering dust, now lined up unevenly. Saul and Patsy's landlord, Mr. Munger, a retired farmer and unsuccessful freelance preacher who had a fitful temper, had thrown their lids together into an angry heap on a lower shelf. The washtubs were on Saul's right, and in front of him, four feet away, was the sprung mousetrap. The mouse had been pressed flat by the trap, and its tiny yellow incisors were showing at the sides of its mouth, just as Patsy had said.

He loved her, but she could be manipulative when it came to getting him to do household chores that she didn't want to do. Maybe, out of his sight, she was exchanging her letter tiles.

Saul grunted, loosened the spring, and picked up the mouse by the tail, which felt like cold rubber. His fingers brushed against the animal's downy fur, soft as milkweed pods. Being, on a miniature scale, had once been inhabited there. With his other hand he held the flashlight. He heard other mice scratching in the basement corners. Why kill mice if there were always going to be more of them? After climbing the stairs and opening the back door, he set the flashlight down: the cool air and the darkness made his flesh prickle. Still holding the tiny pilgrim, he took four steps into the backyard. Feeling a scant moment of desolation, nothing more than a breeze of feeling, he threw the mouse toward the field, its body arcing over the tiny figure on the horizon of a distant radio transmitting tower, one pulsing red light at its tip. Saul took a deep breath. The blankness of the midwestern landscape excited him. There was a sensual loneliness here that belonged to him now, that was truly his. He thought that fate had perhaps turned him into one of those characters in Russian literature abandoned to haphazard fortune and solitude on the steppes.

Nothing out there seemed friendly except the lights on the horizon, and they were too far away to be of any help.

He walked into the living room, where Patsy was wrapped in a blanket. "Good news and bad news," Saul said, tilting his head. "The good news is that I threw out the mouse. The bad news is that it, she, was pregnant. Maybe that's good news. You decide. By the way, I see that you've wrapped yourself in a blanket. Now why is that? Too cold in here?"

She had dimmed the light, turning the three-way bulb to its lowest wattage. She wasn't sitting in the chair anymore. She was lying on the sofa, the root beer nowhere in sight. With a grand gesture she parted the blanket: she had taken off her clothes except for her underwear, and just above her breasts she had placed six Scrabble letters:

HI SAUL

"Nine points," he said, settling himself down next to her, breathing in her odor, a clear celery-like smell, although tonight it seemed to be mixed with ether. He picked the letters off her skin with his teeth and one by one gently spat them down onto the rug.

"I guess it's good news," Patsy said, "that we don't have all those baby mice in a mouse nursery down there." She kissed him.

"Um," Saul said. "This was what was in it for me?"

"Plain old married love," Patsy said, helping him take his jeans off. Then she lifted up her pelvis as he removed her underwear. "Plain old married love is only what it is."

He moved down next to her as she unbuttoned his shirt. He said, "Sometimes I think you'll go to any length to avoid losing in Scrabble. I think it's a character weakness on your part. Neurotic rigidity. David Shapiro talks about this in his book on neurotic styles. Check it out. It's a loser's trick. I spelled out 'axiom' and you saw the end of your possibilities."

"It's not a trick," she said, absentmindedly stroking his thighs, while he pointed his index finger and pretended to write with it across her breasts and then down across her abdomen. "Hey," she said, "what're you writing with that finger?"

"'I love Patsy,'" he said. "I'm not writing it, I'm printing it."

"Why?"

"Make it more readable."

"'I love Patsy,'" she said. "Seventeen points."

"Sixteen. And it depends where it's placed."

"A V is worth four." His eyes were closed. With one hand he was caressing her right breast, and with the other he wrote other words with imaginative lettering across her hips. "I don't remember making love in this room before. Especially not with the shades up." She stretched to kiss his face and to tease her tongue briefly into his mouth. Then she trailed her finger across his back. "I can do that, too." She traced the letters with her finger just under his shoulders.

"That was an I," Saul said.

"Yes."

"'I love Saul'?" he asked. "Is that what you're writing?"

"You're so conceited. So self-centered."

"The curtains are parted," he said. "The neighbors will see."

"We don't have neighbors. This is the rural middle of American nowhere. Always has been."

"People will drive by on Whitefeather Road and see us having sex on the sofa." He waited. "They might be shocked."

"We're married," she said.

He laughed. "You're wicked, Patsy."

"You keep using old adjectives," she said, sliding her hands up the sides of his chest. "Old blah-blah adjectives that no one uses anymore. That's a habit you should swear off. Let those people watch us. They might learn something." She slithered down to kiss the scar on his knee, then moved up. "The only thing I mind about sex," she said after another minute, "and I've said this before, is that it cuts down on the small talk."

"We talk a lot," Saul said, positioning himself next to her and finally entering her. He grunted, then said, "I think we talk more than most people. No, I'm sure of it. We've always jabbered. Most people don't talk this much, men especially." He was making genial moves inside her. "Of course, it's hard to tell. I mean, who does surveys?"

"Oh, Saul," she said. "You know, I'm glad I know you. Out here in the wilds a girl needs a pal, she really does. You're my pal, Saul. You are. I love you."

"It's true," he said. "We're buddies. Bosom buddies." He kissed a breast. On an impulse, he twisted slightly so that he could reach over to the card table behind him and scoop up a handful of Scrabble letters from the playing board.

"Aren't you too cute. What're you doing?" she asked.

"I'm going to baptize you," he said, slowly dropping the tiled letters on her face and shoulders and breasts. "I'm going to baptize you in The Word."

"God," she said, as a P and an E fell into her hair, "to think that I wanted to distract you with a mouse caught in a trap."

Saul had been hired eighteen months earlier to teach American history, journalism, and speech in the Five Oaks High School. In its general appearance and in its particulars, however, Five Oaks, Michigan, was not what he and Patsy had had in mind. They had planned to settle down in Boston, or, in the worst-case scenario, the north side of Chicago, a good place for a young married couple. They had been working at office jobs in Evanston after graduating from Northwestern, and one day, driving home along the lake, Saul seemed to have a seizure of frustration. He began to shout about the supervision and the random surveillance, how he couldn't breathe or open his office window. "Budget projections for a bus company," he said, "is no longer meaningful work, and it turns out that it never was." He rambled on about getting certified for secondary school because he needed to contribute to what he called "the great project of undoing the dumbness that's been done."

"Saul," Patsy said, sitting on the passenger side and working at a week-old Sunday crossword, "you're underlining your words again."

"This country is falling into the hands of the rich and stupid," Saul grumbled, underlining his words while waving his right hand in an all-purpose gesture at the windshield. "The plutocrats are taking over and keeping everybody ignorant about how things are. The conspiracy of the inane starts in the schools, but it gets big results in business. Everywhere I've looked lately I've seen a cynic in a position of tremendous responsibility. We're being undermined by rich cynics and common people who have been, forcibly, made stupid. This has got to stop. I've got to be a teacher. It's a political necessity. At least for a few years."

"There's lots of stupidity out there, Saul," Patsy said, glancing up at a stoplight. "A big supply. You think you're going to clear it away? That's your plan?" She waited. "The light just turned green. Pay attention to the road, please." She smiled. "'Drive, he sd.'" She reached out and touched him on the cheek. "'For christ's sake, look out where yr going.'"

"Don't quote Creely at me. I'm the big man for the job," Saul said. "This country needs me."

"Well, of course." She scratched her hair. "Write an editorial, why don't you? Nine letters for 'acidic.' First letter is V and the fourth one is R."

"'Vitriolic,'" Saul said. "And you could get certified, too. Or you could insinuate yourself into a bureaucracy and reorganize it. You're so lovable, everybody just does what you ask them to do, without thinking. Boston is full of deadwood. God knows, you can reorganize deadwood. It's been proved." He waited. "You could do whatever you wanted to, if we moved out of here. What do you want to do, Patsy?"

"Finger-exercise composer," Patsy said. "Six letters, last letter Y and first letter C."

"Czerny."

"Boston, huh?" She gazed at the sky. "It's sort of hard to get teaching jobs there, isn't it? Oh, and, by the way, what am I going to do if you start teaching? I don't want to teach."

"That's what I was just asking you. You're not listening to me. What do you want to do?" Patsy had had half-a-dozen majors before she settled for a double major in dance-performance and English.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know what I want to do." She studied the sky. "I'd like to go work in a bank, actually." Another pause. "In the mortgage department."

The statement was so unlike her, Saul smiled. One of her dry, shifty, ironical asides whose subtext you had to go in search of. Then he realized that perhaps she meant it, and he studied her face for aspersions, but Patsy, who was vehement about privacy issues, did not give herself away.


From the Hardcover edition.
Charles Baxter|Author Q&A

About Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter - Saul and Patsy

Photo © Keri Pickett

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 collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

"Stunning, never predictable, glimmering fiction, full of mischief and insight." –The Los Angeles Times

“Marvelous. . . . Baxter's prose–trenchant, funny, and apt to turn on a metaphysical dime–remains one of the pure pleasures of American fiction.” –The Atlantic Monthly

“For the past twenty years, Baxter has been writing some of the finest fiction in America about love, longing and the holes we carve in one another's hearts. . . . [Saul and Patsy is] eerily beautiful.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Baxter at his best. He is an observer and writer of prodigious giftsÉ. A disquieting, thoroughly enjoyable and unforgettable novel.” — The Seattle Times

"A tale of generations at war and the troubled underside of placid Midwestern life . . . abounding in irony and wit, and reminiscent of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow." –San Francisco Chronicle

“Baxter reminds us that there is no regional monopoly on virtue and understanding, and no easy comforts for either self-appointed world-savers or smug populists. And for all those hard lessons, Baxter also manages to deliver Saul and Patsy into something astonishingly close to a happy ending. Such indeed is the glory of love--and of fully realized fiction.” –The Washington Post Book World

“One of our most gifted writers.” –Chicago Tribune

"Thoughts sprawl delightfully, insanely, worryingly and sometimes brilliantly from Saul, who, we often have to remind ourselves, is only in his twenties. . . . Funny and grown-up and generous." –The New York Times Book Review

"Charles Baxter's novel Saul and Patsy is what it appears to be--a love story. But underneath its placid surface broils biting social commentary, a tale of lost teenagers adrift in a culture with no moral center." –The Oregonian

"Saul and Patsy [is] a penetrating, surprisingly funny meditation on the dynamics of community belonging and acceptance." –The New York Times

"[Baxter] weaves magic into everyday life as if it were mere coincidence. Clark Kent is to Superman as Charles Baxter is to his writing." –Los Angeles Times

"It is rare that a novel, even a good one, manages to evoke contemporary life without being self-conscious about it. But that is what Baxter achieves here." –The New Yorker

"Watch out for the 'quiet Midwestern' tag on [Baxter's] writing: That's the iceberg you will strike. There is nothing simple in his universe, and nothing solely on the surface. Baxter's intelligence and humor are submerged, and dangerous. You know--something like yours." –Detroit Free Press

"Baxter . . . make[s] the mundane seem marvelous, the everyday seem extraordinary. . . . A clever and empathetic writer." –The Capital Times

"On almost every page at least one sentence would make me stop and shake my head in amazement and wonder. . . . Few lessons can be more valuable than a sense of how important the persistence of questioning must be to any fully realized human life. Few novels manage to renew that important sense so vividly and poignantly as Saul and Patsy." –Logan Browning, Houston Chronicle

"Both hilarious and poignant." –The Dallas Morning News

"Baxter defies the laws of publishing gravity: He went up and has yet to come down. . . . Baxter's new novel is just as bright and fully imagined, just as energetic as anything that came before." –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Brilliantly exploring the emotional intricacies of a young marriage, Charles Baxter's latest novel, Saul and Patsy, uncannily exposes the least flattering side of human desire while celebrating the inexplicable power that love has over our lives." –Rocky Mountain News

"A warm, sad, subtle tale of difficult love." –O, The Oprah Magazine

"Baxter's store of figurative language and rich, apt description is essentially boundless, and he draws generously from it for all the characters." –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"More proof that Baxter is one of the best novelists anywhere. Every line packs a double punch--what it apparently means and what it really means." –Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Charles Baxter has a uniquely keen eye for the seemingly minor, ultimately telling, detail." –The Denver Post

"Baxter is a gifted, humane novelist." –Newsday
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

A New York Times Notable Book
and a
San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“Baxter at his best. He is an observer and writer of prodigious gifts. . . . A disquieting, thoroughly enjoyable and unforgettable novel.” —The Seattle Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Charles Baxter’s Saul and Patsy. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about this extraordinary novel.

About the Guide

Patsy Carlson and Saul Bernstein, both easterners, have settled down in Five Oaks, Michigan, where Saul is a high school teacher and Patsy works in a bank. Soon they have a baby named Mary Esther, whose arrival interrupts the fine, comfortable intimacy they shared. All is fine, really, except for Saul’s nagging dissatisfaction with himself and his feeling that, as a Jew, he has no business living in the Midwest. His mother Delia doesn’t understand his choice: “You’re living in nothingness,” she tells him. But at least he’s far away from his overly attractive mother, who soon begins an affair with her lawn boy, and far away from his brother Howie, the dot-com millionaire, whose fabulous life Delia often relates to Saul.

Life takes a dark turn when one of Saul’s remedial students, a grungy, blank-faced sixteen-year-old named Gordy Himmelman, begins to hang around outside their house to just stand and stare. When the boy commits a horrific act of violence, a Gordy cult—fueled by suspicion and hatred of Saul—forms among the students at the high school, and Saul is forced to find a way to defuse a dangerous threat to his family and himself.

Saul and Patsy, like Baxter’s previous novel The Feast of Love, masterfully details the unexpected quirks of human nature that make people who they are. Baxter’s presentation of his characters and of the oddities of contemporary life is clear-eyed, humane, and poignant.

About the Author

Charles Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of seven previous works of fiction, including the 2000 National Book Award finalist The Feast of Love (0-375-70910-X), Believers (0-679-77653-2), Harmony of the World (0-679-77651-6), and Through the Safety Net (0-679-77649-4).

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet; Raymond Carver, Cathedral; Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”; Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman; Richard Price, Samaritan; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Issac Bashevis Singer, The Golem; Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief.
Charles Baxter

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  • Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter
  • April 12, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $13.95
  • 9780375709166

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