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Watching as lives unfold

Charles Baxter seems to weave magic into his unpredictable fiction. His latest, 'Saul and Patsy,' looks at a couple and a community.

September 30, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Charles Baxter is a perfectly nice guy. Good manners, pleasant expression, nonthreatening dress code. "I have to admit," he sighs, full of remorse, "that I've never really liked Jesus. That whole episode with the fig tree. I mean, a guy who hates trees? I don't know."

And then there is his stunning, never predictable, glimmering fiction, full of mischief and insight; the way he turns men and women inside out, the way he weaves magic into everyday life as if it were mere coincidence. Clark Kent is to Superman as Charles Baxter is to his writing.

On a recent day, Baxter is in Los Angeles to hear his work read by actors at Literary Stages, a salon produced by Cedering Fox in which selections of works from various authors are read onstage after lunch with the writer at the Canal Club in Venice.

Surrounded by Hollywood actors and television producers, the 56-year-old guest in his practical shoes and glasses looks thin and, well, sort of uncomfortable. Their big personalities swirl around him. They compensate for the writer, speaking to him a little too loudly, the way some people speak to foreigners. Probably some kind of genius. Then they read his language out loud, and they barely have to act, so completely does he throw anyone who reads his work into his characters. They just glide along on his utterly, preposterously lifelike dialogue, humor and grace.

Adam Arkin (who reads a story called "Griffin" exquisitely) seems nervous before his performance. He sits across the table from Baxter, who looks stiff but not nervous, just watchful, as if he is gathering, gathering details and phrases. Later, as Baxter watches the actor read, he laughs at his own jokes. But when Arkin trips on a word, it is as though Baxter were in the actor's body. He jolts, shakes his head, leans forward, then relaxes when the phrase is read correctly.

"About a year after they had rented the farmhouse with loose brown aluminum siding on Whitefeather Road, Saul began glaring out the west window after dinner into the unappeasable darkness that pressed against the glass." So begins Baxter's fourth novel, "Saul and Patsy" (Pantheon), already a darling of critics across the country.

"I begin with a set of dramatic images," the author explains, visiting his interviewer's home and grimacing a little because the coffee he is drinking is strong and bitter. The Midwestern darkness pressing against the windows is one such image. A young boy, the product of neglect and abuse, looking into a house filled with happiness is another image, a building block of the novel:

"One Saturday morning in November, there he was again, standing under the large tree, the linden, that the developers had spared in their yard. In his characteristic way, Gordy was staring at the house, then at the sky, then at the ground, then at the house again."

Inside, there are Saul and Patsy and their baby girl. They have moved to the Midwest so that Saul can teach high school English. Patsy works in a bank. "No sane Jew," Saul thinks to himself as he stares out the window, "ever lived on a dirt road." Saul sees anti-Semitism everywhere, and most of the time, he's right. But he comes to love the Midwest almost as much as he loves Patsy, which is about as deeply as any character in fiction has ever loved another.

"Good old married love," Patsy says of their sex and romance (which often involves innovative uses for Scrabble tiles). Saul and Patsy (saying one without the other is almost impossible) were created by Baxter several years ago and went on to grace three previously published short stories, which are included as chapters in this novel.

'Threat of violence'

As nice and mild as Baxter is, his fiction is full of terrifying tension. "The threat of violence is much more interesting than violence itself," he has said, and this novel is full of threats. Gordy Himmelfarb, one of Saul's Jew-hating students, begins his vigil outside Saul's house with a gun he has stolen from his ugly, abusive guardian. Another nasty student, dressed as a crow on Halloween, drives a young girl into the woods in a scene that Baxter admits he simply could not bring to its logical conclusion of violent rape, though we know that's just what happens.

"These images swirl in my head gathering up heat. I wanted to create that feeling of being excluded from happiness." Baxter says he rarely knows which way his characters will go. He did not know, for example, that one of his creations would shoot himself "until the day it happened. I came downstairs in a cold sweat and said to my wife, 'One of my main characters just killed himself.'

"A lot of stories are powered by desires and fears," Baxter explains. During the conversation, I can see that he is uncomfortable on a metal stool, but I don't offer to move to another room. (Why? Because he's such a good writer, that's why. He shouldn't get to be comfortable too.)

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