By Charles Baxter
Pantheon, 317 pp., $24
If you were a smart, idealistic young man, fresh out of Northwestern and looking to contribute to "the
great project of undoing the dumbness that's been done" to schoolkids in America, would you move with your equally intelligent wife from Evanston, Illinois, to a town called Five Oaks, Michigan, where "resignation was the great local spiritual specialty," where "the local pride in anonymity ate away at everything," and where "churches tried ... to keep people calm when the members of the congregation felt like screaming"?
Yes, you would, if you were a guy like Saul Bernstein.
If your sexy spouse was working a crossword puzzle and she asked you for a "finger-exercise composer" (six letters, last letter Y and first letter C), would you answer in no time "Czerny"?
Yes, like Saul.
And if you were a high school history teacher stuck also teaching remedial writing and if your most uncooperative back-row student showed up in your front yard (to stare into space, over the course of weeks) then one day pulled out a handgun, would you ever think to notify the police, administrators, somebody?
You would. Saul doesn't, which means he suffers some serious consequences, which is what happens in the 2000 National Book Award nominee Charles Baxter's new novel, Saul and Patsy. The book is a beautifully detailed and convincing look into what does and does not work in the opening years of one largely happy marriage, but it's equally about what is and isn't making contemporary America tick. Who can blame wife Patsy, her charity finally "failing her," for criticizing Saul's "errant compassion"? Or blame Saul's mid-40s widowed mother in Baltimore for taking a 17-year-old lover? Or blame Saul's handsome brother in California for putting on millionaire airs? Or blame Gordy Himmelman, that damaged dropout with his eyes to the sky (hence himmel) and his hands on a firearm, inspiring, in absentia, a high school goth craze and teenage "cult of the undead"?
But this Saul. He's a postgraduate adult-in-training who still quotes Schopenhauer and Beaudelaire, but he's a committed guy too, doing his part as a good teacher, a loving husband, a model father, and maybe the "Last American Humanist." He's something of an outsider, a nonpracticing Jew in the country's whitebread heartland, but he's a narcissistic "despair junkie and a virtuoso of fretfulness" as well, until, with the birth of his daughter, "the romance of failure" (his) loses its luster and "the special-needs types" (in class) exhaust his patience. Saul doesn't so much quit his job as take up beekeeping.
And this Gordy. His mother died in a house fire, his father's nowhere to be found, the waitress-aunt who looks after him chain-smokes, so Gordy could be doomed, and Gordy is doomed, but he's a real match for Saul, who has a great way of going verbally one-on-one against the best of them. And Gordy's the best of them: a master sorehead who's downright dangerous -- his best line: "Mad [for "made"] in America" (based on his inability to spell or is it an ability to pun?); Saul's name for him: "Frankenstein's monster." (But Bernstein's sudden responsibility?)
And these aren't all. Fair Oaks may be populated with small-town types -- the widowed neighbor with arias to sing and cookies to bake; the teenage couple with kids too soon; Gordy's aunt with her perpetual blue fog of cigarettes, acid comments, and oversize TV; Harold the barber nodding off with scissors in hand -- but Baxter treats all of them respectfully, their lots in life sympathetically.
Throwing in his lot late in Saul and Patsy: Saul, with those pasty-faced misfits who have followed in Gordy's wake and who stir up some serious trouble one Halloween night for Saul, his house, and his family. Saul gives them what they want, and these "monsters of neglect and loneliness" give Saul what he needs: a major last chance to show his skills and gifts, "such as they were." It's a great, tense, extended scene, and Flannery O'Connor, with her own Misfit in mind and knowing the rules of adoption, couldn't have put it better. A good man like Saul Bernstein is hard to find. Charles Baxter has.