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emew$§1 1 Saw/ and Patsy by Charles Baxter Pantheon, 2003, 317 pp., $24 As a novel, Charles Baxter's Saul and Patsy is a failure. As a collection ofshort stories wryly observing the irresolute state of modern man, however, it approaches brilliance . Approaches it, but never quite reaches the heights of Baxter's 2000 National Book Award finalist 77k Feast ofLove. Saul and Patsy might be the most anticipated book of Baxter's career. Scores of fans have been waiting for years to read more about the couple so memorably established in the short stories "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan," "Saul and PatsyAre in Labor" and "Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant." Saul and Patsy includes versions of those stories and adds transitional material to fill out the novel. Baxter's writing, while always dead-on in its observations of the inner tickings of men and women, suffers from the uneven, patchwork nature of the narrative . It would have been better, perhaps , to release this as The Saul and Patsy Stories without trying to span the years between events in the lives of this angst-ridden couple who live in "the rural middle of American nowhere." There's barely the semblance of a plot: high school teacher Saul Bernstein , an impatient and agitated Jew trying to adjust his temperament to the Midwest, is stalked by a pitiful loner from his remedial English class and must eventuaUy protect his wife and daughter from the violence invading small-town Michigan. But that's not really what Saul and Patsy is "about." It's not easy to pin down the theme of the book, but taken individuaUy the moments and messages are persuasively accurate portraits of Americans in the new millennium. Even though most of the Saul and Patsy stories were written in the 1980s, they are timeless enough to impact readers who have seen shuttle explosions , school shootings and jetliners used as weapons of mass destruction. Saul is distracted ("he felt his attention disperse into the landscape, floating graduaUy into the topsoil, like pollen "), even as he struggles to discover the true secret ofthe universe—which, according to an ad he sees on a matchbook , is available for a check ormoney order in the amount of six dollars. We are all looking for something, Baxter seems to be saying, but it's not necessarily happiness. In Saul's case, it might just be satisfaction, a sense of knowing that there is indeed an answer out there, even if that answer is never revealed. The Missouri Review · 193 As the popularity of Baxter's stories attests, there's something appealing about this man and his wife—whether it's the love the creator has for his characters or whether it's just the way he delivers them to us on the page: "Saul, Patsy thought, was like one of those pastries you couldn'tgetenough of at first—you'd gorge on them. And then, it seemed, once you'd had enough of them, you wanted to get rid ofthat addiction,butyou couldn't, there was no way to stop. You were alwaysgoingtohave thosejellydoughnuts in your life because you had once craved them. Slowly but surely, they would put weight on you." (DA) The Cyclist by Viken Berberian Simon and Schuster, 2002, 187 pp., $10 (paper) In The Cyclist, first-time novelist Viken Berberian conceives of terrorists not as embodiments of abstractions such as madness, evil or misguided religious fervorbut as people. His unnamed narrator, whose mission will be to pedal a bomb into a Beirut resort, is human, has soft spots: a love of food and a weight problem, a frankly sensuous girlfriend (who's in on the plan), a deftness with language, savvy wit and a wistful lyricism in evoking landscapes, recipes and the international world. He'd be endearing—if it weren't for reminders, often jarringly lyric too, of his upcoming mission : "What this pastel portrait needs is a few strokes of violent vermilion like the .. . blood that I plan to spill." Berberian provides focused motives for this cold intent: a blast in our narrator 's village that killed many people, including his girlfriend's parents; and...


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pp. 193-194
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