This novel chronicles a marriage between smarty pantses (they pause a game of Scrabble to have sex in the opening scene), the star of which is the ever-fussy Saul, a teacher in a humble Michigan city, where "the blankness of the Midwestern landscape excited him." Well said, Charles Baxter!
The story unfolds over the years as Saul and Patsy start a family, and their quaint lives are infiltrated by children — their own, and others' kids. One in particular jars their complacency — Saul's mentally imbalanced student, Gordy, who stalks the family. Jonathan Franzen gets all the brainy Midwestern-writer applause, but I sure like the quieter Baxter, with his funny and thoughtful prose that doesn't scream but speaks.
Side note: I read an Amazon editorial review of this book, and it starts out: "Poor Charles Baxter, doomed to be forever thought of as a writer's writer." That right there? The curse of the Midwestern writer in action.
Being an Iowan, I feel weird shouting out The Mitten twice, but this sprawling novel about a fictional tourist town in Michigan lake country is so jam-packed with quirky and awesome characters, I can't help it.
There's the Ojibwe Indian, Roger Drinkwater, who is driven mad by Jet Skis. The lonely widower, the Rev. Eugene Reecher, who grapples with a porn addiction. The bigoted orchard owner Hubert vonBushberger, who is blindsided when his son secretly marries a migrant worker — she shows up for work pregnant at the start of the season — and vonBushberger's daughter, who makes matters worse by bringing home a Japanese dude. Think of this as an edgy, dark Lake Woebegon.
Bonus points: The original cover on this book was a hand-drawn map of the town by Steve Amick himself. That's some typical Midwestern hard work for you.
When Mattie's husband dies in a farming accident on their Black Hills, S.D., ranch, she has to step up to the plate (that's what we do around here). Mattie enlists the help of her daughter, a runaway Indian boy, and a hired woman with a dark past. Three chicks and a kid operating an alfalfa ranch already have the cards stacked against them, but then the bully neighbors decide they want the land and will stop at nothing to get it.
It's a violent and moody tale — no fluffy Traveling Pants business for this book — but the characters are entrancing and the steel rail of love running through the family is inspiring.
I could go on and on, flagging quotes and everything, but my personal copy is missing. Considering my iron-fisted book-loaner policy, this act of borrowing bravado is further proof of the book's compelling nature.
I would love to add to this entirely out-of-character Midwestern ploy for attention — Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time, Orchard by Larry Watson, The Real Minerva by Mary Sharratt — but the editors here are only giving me this meager amount of space.
I'm pretty sure if I was from, say, New Hampshire, I'd have gotten at least four recommendations. Maybe five.
See what I mean?
Jennifer Wilson is the author of Running Away to Home.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.