What seems like a safe haven for a loving young couple is shattered by a high-school dropout’s suicide: Baxter’s latest follows The Feast of Love, an NBA finalist in 2000.
Saul and Patsy met at Northwestern, where they quickly fell in love, animal passions blending with a rare intimacy of mind and spirit. Now here they are, young marrieds, still passionate, living in semi-rural Michigan; Saul is a high-school teacher in a featureless city. Though an angst-ridden urban Jew, Saul enjoys the “indifference” of the Heartland; besides, he’s on a mission to undo “the dumbness.” How ironic, then, that he rolls the car after some serious drinking. He and Patsy find refuge in the home of a former (dumb) student, already married to his high-school sweetheart. Saul admires their simple ways and becomes a voyeur, detouring past their “damnable house of happiness,” never dreaming he will soon acquire a voyeur himself. Patsy has had a baby girl and Saul takes some baby pictures into his remedial English class, whose dumbest student, Gordy Himmelman, plainly loathes him. Gordy starts showing up on their front lawn, staring, immobile; one time he produces an unloaded gun. Saul drives the parentless Gordy back to his aunt Brenda, a benighted hag-like waitress, but Gordy keeps returning until one day, with the storybook family watching, he blows his brains out. In death, Gordy becomes the object of a high-school cult. Kids bleach their hair and call themselves “Himmels.” Saul, who has figured out that Gordy was “offering himself . . . for adoption,” becomes a scapegoat. The climax comes on Halloween when eight kids drive up, arson and worse on their minds. Saul, drawing on dramatic and parenting skills he never knew he had, brilliantly defuses the crisis.
Baxter is a master of stealth, easing us by degrees from a world shaped by love toward a creepy nihilism. His deft fusion of a love story with a post-Columbine psychodrama is a major achievement.