Professor draws drama out of small-town life

Charles Baxter proves that Midwestern authors can dig into deep, dark topics

Erin Adler

It’s a gray winter day and University professor and author Charles Baxter is preparing for the removal of a wisdom tooth, a fact he says embarrasses him a little at his age.

The dental appointment is just the kind of banal detail reviewers love to associate with the modest Midwestern professor.

“I hope whatever I’m saying is more complicated than that,” Baxter said about critics’ Midwestern focus. “(The Midwest) isn’t just flyover territory.”

Baxter’s writing addresses more than simply regional themes. The sleepy locale of his latest book, “Saul and Patsy,” only emphasizes how dramatic events can be for the characters living them.

“In the small town where the story takes place, on the “boom and bust’ Rust Belt, where people once had work on the farm, the working class situation is pretty complicated,” he said.

Baxter is completing a book-signing tour for the paperback printing of 2003’s “Saul and Patsy” this spring and summer. Although the book has been received favorably, it isn’t the critical success that Baxter’s 2000 “Feast of Love” was. And Baxter knows it.

“I knew when I finished “Saul and Patsy’ that it wouldn’t have the same sales,” he said. “That’s part of the deal. You have to move on.

“When I finished “Feast of Love,’ I didn’t have any idea that it’d be the phenomenon of its day that it was, but part of it was the subject matter ” it’s a “moonlight love madness’ kind of book.”

“Saul and Patsy” also uses madness, in some ways, to fly in the face of those who want to envision the Midwest as constant and benign.

In it, high school teacher Saul unwittingly earns the attention of one of his troubled pupils, Gordy Himmelman. The orphaned child of a hard-luck family, Gordy lives with his abusive aunt in a trailer not far from Saul. He frequently stops by Saul’s home to stand idly in the front yard.

Baxter said that in creating Gordy, as with all characters, he was first “just trying to get a character on the page” with the “meaning or symbol secondary.”

But he did have a certain group in mind when he created Gordy’s perplexing character, he said.

“I was thinking of all these under-parented kids,” he said. “What do they do? What do they want?”

With Gordy, whose presence Saul’s family eventually learns to ignore, “You don’t know what to do about him. He’s both dangerous and harmless. One minute it’s “Man, I’d call the police,’ but then you think “Man, I’d invite him in for dinner,’ ” he said.

The climax of the book is violent, and Baxter said that if he’d had more time, he might have made it more so.

But it’s his characters’ mixed and unsentimental reactions that truly show the brutality that occurs when a person lives an invisible life.

This true-to-life aspect of Baxter’s writing allows Baxter’s plots to avoid cliche, in this case the much-discussed topic of youth violence and school shootings. With intimate snippets of conversation and seemingly uneventful trips to the grocery store, it also earns the accolades of reviewers, who call his books “subtle” and “prosaic.”

As a creative writing professor, Baxter is regularly involved in the academic lives of young people, just as Saul is.

In fact, he is known to more than a few young writers as a mentor.

Baxter said he fosters relationships with young writers because “it’s so hard to get a foothold in the (writing) culture, and there is so much that doesn’t encourage people to make a living at writing,” he said.

“Of course, you can’t tell everyone that he’s a genius ” that would be fraudulent,” he said. “You just try to give to each student and their work what you can.”

Baxter is, as one might expect, a born-and-bred Midwesterner, quite modest about his writing and said he does not use his work to teach lessons in his class.

“I don’t like that,” he said. “It’s narcissistic to me and kind of creepy.”

Baxter said his characters might foray into “creepy” territory in his next book. He plans to continue to explore characters and themes like the hypothetical identities made possible by the Internet or the ramifications of living near a chemical plant.

He also wants to expand on the character of Saul’s brother Howie, whom he calls “kind of a sociopath, a shapeshifter and a trickster.”

Baxter, who seems a bit of a shapeshifter himself, apparently doesn’t need to redefine the Midwest entirely ” he just wants to revise it a bit.

“The Midwest isn’t Lake Wobegon anymore,” he said.