Saul and Patsy

by Charles Baxter

Published by Pantheon Books

336 pages, 2003




Less Than the Sum

Reviewed by David Abrams


As a novel, Charles Baxter's Saul and Patsy is a failure.

As a collection of short stories wryly observing the irresolute state of modern man, however, it approaches brilliance. It approaches it, but never quite reaches the heights of Baxter's 2000 National Book Award finalist The Feast of Love. The shortcomings of Saul and Patsy lie in its very nature as a novel: midway through, the foundation starts to wobble and you realize the house has been built on stilts, not cinder blocks. By the final chapter (or "story," as I'd prefer to call it), the whole thing collapses into scattered splinters of wonderful writing. In and of themselves, the splintered timbers are often miniature works of art, but there's little to hold them together.

Saul and Patsy is perhaps the most anticipated book of Baxter's career. Scores of fans have been waiting for years to read more about the continuing saga of the couple so memorably established in the short stories "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan," "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor" and "Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant." Like John Updike's stories about Richard and Joan Maple, Baxter casts a wry eye on marriage and all its befuddlements.

Saul and Patsy the novel includes versions of those stories and adds transitional material to fill out the novel … much like a sausage maker stuffing in extra-special secret ingredients to plump out the casing. Baxter's writing, while always dead-on in its observations of the inner tickings of men and women (On some days he could not get out of bed to go to work without groaning and reaching for his hair, as if to drag himself up bodily for the working day), suffers from the uneven rhythms of the narrative. It's like driving down a dirt road somewhere in the Rockies at sunset: the scenery is gorgeous but the bumps and ruts are enough to jar your teeth loose from your head.

It would have been better, perhaps, to release this as The Saul and Patsy Stories without trying to force the material to span the gaps between events in the lives of this angst-ridden couple who live in "the rural middle of American nowhere."

Most Baxter novels will be forever held to the standard of The Feast of Love, which is just a couple sentences short of a flat-out masterpiece. Granted, The Feast of Love had its episodic moments -- in fact, the whole damned thing was just one patchwork quilt of scenes from Modern American Love -- but Baxter somehow held everything together, making the seams hard to detect.

There are no such smooth stitches in Saul and Patsy. There's the semblance of a plot: high school teacher Saul Bernstein, an impatient and agitated Jew trying to adjust his temperament to the Midwest, is stalked by a pitiful loner from his remedial English class and must eventually protect his wife and daughter from the violence invading small-town Michigan. There's a sudden, shocking gunshot midway through the book which causes more strain on the marriage and sends Saul spiraling off into more tooth-grinding ruminations. It all comes to a head (sort of) in a mystical encounter with a young girl at a sidewalk stand selling hope and redemption along with refreshing glasses of lemonade.

But, looking back at that summary, that's not really what Saul and Patsy is "about." It's not easy to pin down the theme of the book (I suspect Baxter struggled with this problem, too), but taken individually the moments and messages are persuasively accurate portraits of Americans in the new millennium. Even though most of the Saul and Patsy stories were written in the 1980s, they are timeless enough to impact readers who have seen shuttle explosions, school shootings and jetliners used as weapons of mass destruction. Like many of us, Saul is distracted (he felt his attention disperse into the landscape, floating gradually into the topsoil, like pollen), even as he struggles to discover the true secret of the universe -- which, according to an ad on a matchbook, is available for a check or money order in the amount of six dollars.

We are all looking for something, Baxter seems to be saying, but it's not necessarily happiness. In Saul's case, it might just be satisfaction, a sense of knowing that there is indeed an answer out there, even if that answer is never revealed. Chances are, Saul will never be satisfied with his lot in life -- certainly not in the blank anonymity of the Midwest. Even his own mother (laying on the Jewish matriarch stereotype) warns him: "You're living in nothingness. It'll eat you up. As anyone with a brain in his head would tell you. But I won't interfere. Maybe nothingness suits you."

Saul and Patsy go through their haphazard lives like most of us: they play Scrabble, they bowl, they drink too much at a friend's barbecue, they clean rain gutters, they glare out the window at "the unappeasable darkness that was pressed against the glass." They make love, they make babies, they make the best of things even as the worst of things are pressing against their windows. As the popularity of Baxter's stories attests, there's something appealing about this man and his wife -- whether it's the love the creator has for his characters or whether it's just the way he delivers them to us on the page:

They had an oddball marriage, and they both knew it. 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, a Hallmark Card sort of thing.

And later, when Baxter shifts to Patsy's perspective:

Saul, Patsy thought, was like one of those pastries you couldn't get enough of at first -- you'd gorge on them. And then, it seemed, once you'd had enough of them, you wanted to get rid of that addiction, but you couldn't, there was no way to stop. You were always going to have those jelly doughnuts in your life because you had once craved them. Slowly but surely, they would put weight on you.

It's individual moments like these -- Saul as a jelly doughnut -- that make Saul and Patsy worth reading. It's too bad the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts. | August 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.