Midwestern ghosts, midwestern magic
by Keith Taylor
From the October, 2003 issue
A few years ago Charles Baxter wrote a love story set in Ann Arbor, The Feast of Love, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. Last year I met a couple of Scandinavian writers in Greece who had a vague idea that Detroit made cars and had never heard of the U-M, but they knew Ann Arbor as the town in Baxter's novel. Until I persuaded them of our reality, they thought the town with the funny name might exist only in Baxter's fiction.
Baxter's new novel, Saul and Patsy, is a ghost story. There are the gentle humor and genuine characters we have come to expect in Baxter's novels, but this time there are also the scary, spooky elements necessary for a good ghost story, and an intentionally unresolved anxiety that keeps a reader troubled to the end.
Baxter first wrote about Saul and Patsy Bernstein twenty years ago in a short story, and they have since popped up once or twice in other places. He is obviously attracted to his idealistic young couple who move to Five Oaks, Michigan, a genuinely fictional town in the Saginaw River valley that Baxter has been populating in various stories for years. Saul is a high school teacher, and Patsy works part time as a loan officer in a local bank. In this novel they are beginning a family and buying a house.
Saul is from Baltimore, and he's Jewish. He feels he doesn't belong in the rural Midwest and worries about real and imagined anti-Semitism, but he also relishes his sense of difference and reflects on it constantly:
The blankness of the midwestern landscape excited him. There was a sensual loneliness here that belonged to him now, that was truly his. He thought that fate had perhaps turned him into one of those characters in Russian literature abandoned to haphazard fortune and solitude on the steppes.
The new character in this
book is an uneducated and uninterested high school student named Gordy Himmelman. Gordy is a blank, his emotions so deeply hidden as to be almost nonexistent. He is fascinated by Saul and Patsy, by their articulate difference, by their obvious affection for each other. They often find him standing in their front yard simply staring at the sky. After his spectacular death for which Saul and Patsy feel responsible he becomes the ghost who haunts the book. A genuinely ghoulish small-town cult grows up around the young man who had been friendless in life, and rumors of his ghostly appearances spread all through Five Oaks. That Baxter is able to invest all of this with his own kind of midwestern magic, yet can often fool even very good readers into thinking he writes a kind of realistic fiction, might be seen as the true measure of his talent.
Charles Baxter reads from Saul and Patsy on Friday, October 3.
[Originally published in October, 2003.]
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