Consider Gina, a diffident 16-year-old in the depressed little city of Five Oaks, Mich., in this mesmerizing novel of delightfully plausible contradictions. One morning, hours before she half-heartedly attempts suicide and accidentally starts a cult devoted to a deceased schoolmate she doesn't particularly like, Gina sits in her bedroom and wonders: ''If some people were 'unruly,' then who was 'ruly'? Nobody. When her room was messy, her mother said it was 'unkempt,' but when it was clean, it was never 'kempt'...''
Gina is a minor figure in Saul and Patsy, but she suggests Charles Baxter's flair for observation. His eighth work of fiction is Midwestern both in setting and temperament, bighearted and understated. The titular couple meet at Northwestern and settle in Five Oaks; he teaches high school, she works in the local bank. Back in Baltimore, his Jewish mom kvetches about her son's chosen home and career -- and privately about Saul and Patsy's demonstrably public love, which strikes her as ''an error of taste or judgment.''
Five Oaks is rife with class differences, but it's also a place in which well-meaning people make false assumptions with consequences that are real but never overwrought. (The man glaring at Saul from his yard isn't an anti-Semite, just an old-timer with Alzheimer's.) There is real drama in these pages, but no literary chest-thumping. Following 2000's equally evocative ''The Feast of Love,'' Baxter has created a book that is utterly feckful.