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Bliss subsiding

Saul and Patsy A Novel Charles Baxter Pantheon: 320 pp., $24

September 28, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Michigan teenager Gordy Himmelman is about the least any human being can be. Sullen, uncommunicative, a marginal student, a borderline delinquent, Gordy offers nothing other people can love or even hate -- how can you hate a zero? He scrawls misspelled anti-Semitic slurs on his English assignments, which his teacher, Saul Bernstein, ignores, knowing Gordy incapable of ideology. He brings a gun to Saul's house, with no apparent purpose. He visits the Bernsteins' yard off and on, gazing blankly at the sky or his feet. Saul can't figure out what to do with him or what Gordy is doing. Casting an evil spell? Begging, the only way he knows how, for attention and sympathy? Then suddenly, midway through Charles Baxter's first novel since "The Feast of Love," Gordy kills himself; and Saul and his wife, Patsy -- introduced in Baxter's 1990 story collection, "A Relative Stranger" -- face the first real threat to their domestic happiness.

The newly married Bernsteins love each other so flagrantly that onlookers, including Saul's widowed mother, squint at them with mixed envy and embarrassment. Their daughter's birth dims the incandescence somewhat: Patsy's priority is now the baby, and Saul, an East Coast city boy raised on a diet of irony and self-consciousness, wonders anew why he's stuck in the stolid Midwest. Still, the Bernsteins seem perfectly matched. Saul, despite his moodiness, restlessness and occasional grandiosity, is a mensch. Patsy has Earth-mother wisdom. Content in Michigan, she deftly juggles childbearing with her work as a loan officer in a bank. Together they are a double star around which darker, wobblier bodies revolve -- not just Gordy but also Saul's mother, who overreacts to her humdrum marriage to Saul's father by having a fling with her yard boy; and Saul's brother, Howie, who hides dire secrets behind his handsome face and dot-com millions. "Protected and insular in their storybook house," Howie muses with affection and contempt, "his brother and sister-in-law had no idea how the world worked.... One small misstep, one stumble, and the jackals were upon you."

In the episodic opening chapters of this loose-jointed tale, Baxter makes the Bernsteins' bliss seem real and palpable -- not the easiest thing for a novelist to do. And what Baxter does even better is riff on life's universal minor problems. Husbands since Paleolithic times have felt romantically shunted aside by the arrival of children, but "Saul and Patsy" manages to mine this situation for fresh insights, as well as poetry and humor.

Gordy's suicide, however, changes everything. The bloodstains on the trunk of a tree in the Bernsteins' yard won't wash off. In an incoherent way, the town of Five Oaks holds Saul responsible, and actual anti-Semitism surfaces. Teenagers who disdained Gordy when he was alive form a goth cult and report Elvis-like "sightings" of their new hero. A girl named Gina hears Gordy's voice underwater urging her to drown. Halloween pranksters surround the Bernsteins' house with gasoline cans at the ready. The very nullity of Gordy's life allows the townspeople to give it any meaning they please; the gravity of his death is like a black hole swallowing the solar system the Bernsteins have kept spinning on an axis of love and reason.

Saul and Patsy themselves are changed. Patsy, pregnant again, has already felt "her heart slowly hardening, developing a shellac," as motherhood preempts the concern she used to bestow on strangers. Fearing Saul will blame himself for the suicide, she finds herself arguing that Gordy wasn't even human. This only makes Saul angry. After a period of denial, he mourns this unmournable boy so deeply and unreasonably that he has to quit teaching and leave Michigan and his wife for a while. In the end, as in the beginning, "Saul and Patsy" has an improvised quality to it. What we remember isn't the whole but brilliant fragments, like the unnervingly funny interview Saul gives a TV reporter after Gordy's death. Still in denial, and honest in an English teacher's way, Saul refuses to use the word "tragedy," telling the increasingly exasperated reporter he wants to "avoid the usual pieties," which are all she deems fit for her viewers to hear. "Let's try to stay on-message," she scolds him off the air -- an admonition Baxter profitably ignores. *

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