Saul and Patsy
By Charles Baxter
(Pantheon Books: New York) $24/hardcover
"No sane Jew ever lived on a dirt road." So says Saul, an East Coast-born-and-raised high-school teacher who, with his wife Patsy, has been living in the rural community of Five Oaks, Mich., for about a year. The Midwestern earnestness and relentless sincerity of the place scalds Saul, a worldly guy seeped in irony.
Saul and Patsy first appeared in a Charles Baxter short story, "Saul and Patsy are Pregnant." That chapter appears about a third-of-the way into the novel, when Saul and Patsy flip their car late one night and take refuge with Emory, a former student of Saul's, and his beatific wife Anne. Saul develops an obsessive envy of the young couple. "They lived smack in the middle of reality and never gave it a minute's thought," he muses.
With fierce reserve, Charles Baxter delves into the ordinariness of people he knows are each extraordinary in their own ways, posing an essential cultural contrast between Saul and Patsy and their environs, then simply letting them live out the experiment.
The result is a novel that feels slightly stuck until a key character is inserted into the mix -- a simple-minded student who stalks the family in search of love. What unravels is a clear-eyed tale of the middle way, numbing in its ordinariness but exquisitely woven with wonder.
The Perpetual Ending
By Kristen den Hartog
(MacAdam/Cage: San Francisco) $24/hardcover
Eugenie and Jane are twins, mirror images. Their relatives dote on them as a unit, but they are distinct in their differences. Eugenie is a free spirit, more like her mother Lucy, while Jane craves order. Their father is cold and distant, a figure in and out of their lives.
When this dark novel by Canadian Kristen den Hartog opens, Eugenie is dead. Jane, many years later, is back home to see their mother who is dying of cancer. The book tells the story of the year their mother packed up the girls and moved to Toronto and a cold apartment decorated with construction paper and thrift store castoffs. Interspersed are chapters from the children's fables the adult Jane writes and her fianc illustrates -- sad tales of Siamese twins with supernormal qualities.
Exquisitely written and compulsively readable, Perpetual Ending is ultimately a joyless book. There's little hope to be drawn and the reader is left imagining Jane wrestling her demons for the rest of her life. Perfectly structured, this elegant book is crippled by its bleakness.