Encore

Charles Baxter's new novel brings back some old friends

The stars of Charles Baxter's new novel, a wandering Jew and an infinitely adaptable Protestant, first appeared nearly twenty years ago, in the short story "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan." Now the author has called back the couple for an encore, with marvelous results. As before, much of the comedic energy issues from Saul's end: this history teacher and "virtuoso of fretfulness" feels himself shipwrecked in the plainspoken, poker-faced Midwest. The décor at a neighbor's house "felt like a museum of earlier American feelings," he thinks. "Not a single ironic sentence had ever been spoken here. Everything in the room was sincere, everything except himself." Yet even a paragon of self-consciousness like Saul has his Achilles' heel. His love for Patsy, who truly has gotten comfortable in Michigan, brings him at least intermittently out of his shell. And when one of his students begins an anti-Semitic stalking campaign, Saul is stumped. His skeptical riffing, usually such an irresistible force, has finally met an immovable object.

Like its predecessor, The Feast of Love, Baxter's latest creation seems to be several different novels in one. There is a dry-eyed study of domestic life, which suggests that marriage is made neither in heaven nor in hell but in a kind of conjugal limbo, leaving it alternately ecstatic and unbearable. There is a valentine to the Midwest, whose terrain the author describes with almost luminarist ardor. A teenage girl takes a turn at the narrative helm, as do Saul's mother and his younger, obnoxious brother. From time to time, in fact, Saul and Patsy feels like too much of a portmanteau production, with multiple stories clamoring to be top dog. Yet Baxter's prose—trenchant, funny, and apt to turn on a metaphysical dime—remains one of the pure pleasures of American fiction, and he deserves a wide readership for this book, whose vision of embattled heartland Judaism might just as easily have been called Oy, Wilderness!

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James Marcus is the author of Amazonia, a memoir of the Internet boom and bust, to be published next year.

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