Sunday, January 1, 2012

Saul and Patsy: a review

I am now twice delighted by Charles Baxter. The former University of Michigan professor responsible for whipping up the full-bodied and lusty "Feast of Love" whet my appetite once again in a darker take on the modern-day love story in "Saul and Patsy."

The place Saul and Patsy settle down to start their lives--he as a teacher, she as a loan officer at a bank, both, shortly, as parents--is decidedly not Ann Arbor. Despite a reference to the Fleetwood and a drunk driving accident on M-14, the listless atmosphere of the fictional Five Oaks does not evoke any of the urbanity, culture, or there-ness of our beloved university town. Rather, Five Oaks is decidedly not-there, marginalized even by supporting characters in the novel. Part of the charm of this love story is Saul and Patsy's determination to preserve themselves in the face of the brutal obscurity of the place, to make Five Oaks "there" for themselves. In this way, "Saul and Patsy" expounds on a theme that Charles Baxter wrote so effortlessly in "Feast of Love": that is, love as the hero, as the Divine, the white knight, that which will transcend the narrative and lift us from our dreary circumstance. However, in "Saul and Patsy," Baxter hints at the less savory implications of a life made worthwhile through love.

First, love as hero: Saul is a flawed man, and Patsy a flawed woman, and the shortcomings of their life together are manifest, and familiar to most. That romantic and then familial love convincingly thrives in a story that dwells so thoroughly in its characters' neuroses and second-thoughts and existential crises, that the love comes in the same breath as these neuroses and second-thoughts and crises, is what makes Baxter's writing on this topic so authentic. "Kiss me, and you will see how important I am," Sylvia Plath writes, and Saul and Patsy pick up the cue.

But if love is divine, it is devil too: if it is Saul and Patsy's love that rescues them from the bleak indifference of their middle America setting, its lack condemns everybody else. This unimportance, this purposeless, is embodied in the person of Gordon Himmelman, Saul's aggressively unremarkable former student who becomes obsessed with Saul and Patsy only to commit suicide on their front lawn, and who is then mourned by no one but his aunt (with the possible exceptions of the titular characters). Should Saul and Patsy have extended their bliss, their secrets of survival, their sense of purpose to this sad, lost, young man who so desperately needed it? Could they have? Baxter meditates on the smallness of transcendent love in the face of social ills. Love in the style of Saul and Patsy is not democratic: under the logic of love, paradoxically, there is an inverse relation between to the number of people you kiss and how important you are. If everyone is special, then no one is. The strength of the novel is in Saul gently making peace with this incompatibility; that is also its greatest frustration.

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