saul and patsy

by Charles Baxter

(Pantheon, 317 pages, $24)

Some reviewers are waxing rhapsodic over this novel, and it's easy to see why, as Baxter writes skillfully, at times brilliantly. But for all his great sense of scene and all his fresh metaphors, his latest novel is finally crippled by one faulty premise that renders the narrative impotent.

Saul and Patsy, émigrés from the big city, live in smallish Five Oaks, Mich. The community supports two television stations and one newspaper. This would make it about the size of Eugene. Tension in the town builds after a tragic, unpredictable event (so as not to spoil the story for readers, I will refrain from giving away this vital plot point). Television and newspapers swarm over the tragedy, sensationalizing it. Media notoriety generates near-disastrous consequences, inspiring a teen cult that eventually resorts to life-threatening hooliganism.

Here's where the trouble begins. In real life, television stations do not report on, much less sensationalize, the tragedy that serves as the fulcrum of Baxter's tale. The Eugene Register-Guard newspaper, for instance, might run a short account in a back section but certainly no photo. The whole premise seems ineptly premeditated.

Best to read this novel not for the plot but in admiration of the author's literary tools. Saul's father had been "in romance, a utility player." At one point Saul has "a certain marionette feeling." He believes that "no sane Jew ever lived on a dirt road." The couple has a neighbor who is "garage-poor." Other people see Saul and Patsy's marriage as "mildly fraudulent, a Hallmark Card sort of thing." At one point, Saul observes "undergraduates in the latest complicated fashions, with faces fitted out with contemporary distastes and forms of earnestness." Delicious ingredients, indeed. Too bad they never blend into an entree.