Saul Bernstein died in 1985. At the end of “Saul and Patsy
Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” the short story’s
author, Charles Baxter (who until recently taught creative writing
at the University), killed Saul and his wife in a car accident. But
in an interview conducted by his publisher, Pantheon Books, Baxter
explained that “a very large woman approached 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.’ ” The product of that intimidating encounter
includes two short stories and Baxter’s latest novel,
“Saul and Patsy,” a book that will leave many wondering
whether the protagonist would have been better left for dead.

Kate Green
Courtesy of Pantheon

The book follows Saul and his wife, Patsy, through several years
spent in the community of Five Oaks, Mich., where Saul has taken up
teaching in an idealistic “project of undoing the dumbness
that’s been done.” Just as Saul is becoming comfortable
with his identity as a lone Jew educating in the land of the goyim,
a former student from his remedial class begins haunting his home.
Soon enough, tragedy strikes, and as the plot develops, a
treacherous gothic cult begins to threaten the couple and their new
family.

The book’s overarching plot structure, however, matters
less than its smaller subplots. While the passages describing the
tension that childbirth has brought to Saul and Patsy’s
marriage show off a delicacy with words reminiscent of
Baxter’s previous work, most of the book fails to meet that
standard. The character of Saul’s brother, for example,
stands out as one of the book’s more promising elements.
Unfortunately, he goes underdeveloped, and the mysterious subplot
involving his deteriorating sanity languishes.

Saul himself is a cliché exhausted long ago by Woody
Allen. Placing Alvie Singer (“Annie Hall”) in rural
Michigan, renaming him Saul and granting him a stable marriage with
children could, perhaps, have led to some dynamic scenarios. In
Baxter’s book, it hasn’t. Instead, we are offered the
same paranoiac insecurity and fear of anti-Semitism that has
defined the character class for decades. In the few situations in
which Saul transcends his frailty and takes firm action, it seems
almost as though Baxter has slipped in an entirely different
character.

Several of Baxter’s tangents would qualify as excellent
short stories, and the fact that the book is based on examples of
that format is evident throughout. At several points,
Baxter’s widely acclaimed brilliance shines through the
novel’s hodgepodge narrative, but it only leaves the reader
more confused as to why he hadn’t abandoned ship and saved
the more interesting plot webs for separate tales.

“Saul and Patsy” is a book that entices but never
truly fulfills. Its angular, segmented plot sits uncomfortably with
it sensitive, understated prose, while its main character is dull
and stereotypical. Hopefully, Baxter’s next effort
won’t take its cues from assailants at literary
conventions.

Rating: 2 stars

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