The Short Version: Young couple Saul and Patsy Bernstein have moved into a small town in the Midwest, despite it not quite seeming like the right fit for two urban and cultural twentysomethings. Yet here they are. Saul takes a job as a teacher, Patsy takes a job at the bank, and after a while they start a family and continue to solidify their place in the world. But after a troubled youth from one of Saul’s classes takes startling action on their lawn one morning, the idyll is no longer quite so idyllic.
The Review: There’s a moment in the first third of this novel that struck me so viscerally I had to put the book down and allow myself a reverie before continuing. A massive storm kicks up without warning and Saul rushes to batten down the hatches. I had been on the verge of this memory while reading the party scene earlier, but this is when it hit me. A few summers ago, I experienced the truest summer I’ve had since I was little and didn’t know any better – and the culminating moment was not at the big party but rather a few weeks later as a handful of us kept a friend company during a series of storms at a house she was house-sitting. The people I was with, the things that we did… it was so simple and wonderful. It was the less-than-suburban but not-quite-rural summer I’d been trained to expect and never quite received.
And the first hundred-ish pages of this book are the same. The easy prose, the simple building of characters and setting and life… It was a little trying, yes, to constantly be reminded of Saul’s Judaism (and that doesn’t go away, although his paranoia becomes perhaps more justified) and there was occasionally something a little off about the tone, like Baxter didn’t quite stick the landing – but for the most part, I was back in PA at 20 years old with not a single care in the world. And then things changed. SPOILERS a-coming, although this book has passed the statute of limitations, so I believe it to be fair game and not really much of a spoiler anyway.
Gordy was a fascinating character. It’s unclear about what his developmental issue is – left to the imagination, mostly. He was a strange cross between the true troublemakers I knew in high school and the kids who actually had learning disabilities. He’s an eerie presence and one that doesn’t sit quite right in the easy summer of the novel – and when he shows up for the first time with the gun, the Chekovian response takes over and you know that something’s going to happen. What I did not expect was that he’d put the gun in his mouth and shoot himself in the head. Not at all, to be honest – I was quite vocal about that when it happened, as I’m sure the people on the 6 train last night would tell you.
But the most exciting moment for the plot instead simply scattered the author’s attention, I think. There’s a promising continuation of that plot, with the local youths developing a sort of cult around Gordy and the Bernsteins becoming targets of the odd and disturbed group, but Baxter also introduces other pieces to the puzzle – narrators who appear briefly and then scatter away again, mostly without cause. Sure, seeing Saul’s mother at home is a lovely behind-the-scenes touch but she was not a major character in the story. Neither was the brother, whose money problems and con-man subplot vanish almost as soon as introduced. It felt as though Baxter had split the timeline in two, then attempted to merge it back together: on one hand, a creepy, vaguely horror/thriller-esque story about the aftershocks of the death of the kid and the retribution the other kids decide to take (side note: imagine Stephen King going to town on that? The sequence on Halloween night would’ve felt MUCH more intense) and on the other, a story of a relatively average couple in the middle of the USA just tryin’ to make a life. Both of these are acceptable and admirable plots – but there seemed to be a slight lack of focus on both sides and as a result the last two-thirds of the novel felt muddled.
Back to the Halloween night sequence: again, Baxter did a great job subverting my expectations, I have to admit. I thought this scene was going to go bad real fast – worse than it did. I was expecting proper home invasion, real Martha Marcy May Marlene violence or something. Instead, it petered out in what I have to say is a more realistic way. Saul’s actions and the responses of the kids were all so realistic that I felt a strange sense of deflation about them. I wanted the more heightened version of reality and all I got was, well, what probably would’ve happened in real life. And that was what made me realize: this book is, for all the bits and bobs of creepy stuff or the consistent “middle America is anti-Semitic!” murmur, quite akin to novels like Stoner. I think I was expecting more Tana French and so as I closed the book on Saul and Patsy’s relatively content lives, I realized that it was simply another novel about an American experience. Not quite ‘quiet desperation’ but really nothing all that extraordinary either. Yes, the Gordy plot is not something that’s going to happen to everyone… but you pull that out and the book is the story of a typical middle-class family, full stop.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. As the post-Gordy novel continued, it lost some of the “that wonderful summer” glow of the first hundred pages. I’d argue that that’s maybe the effect Baxter was going for – but I felt my enjoyment of the novel tick just perceptibly downward. Combined with the diffusion of plots, I felt the book sink into the comfortable middle ground of novel-land. It went from something evocative to something just nice. Perhaps I’m revealing my literary prejudices a bit – perhaps I’ve just read a bit too many novels of this ilk lately. I’m honestly not sure. But there you have it. I wasn’t disappointed by The Biblioracle’s recommendation, not by a long shot – but it also didn’t really have that big of an impact on me.
And so the summer rolls on.