- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

By Robert Bausch
Harcourt, $25, 230 pages

Robert Bausch's "The Gypsy Man" takes up the old Southern theme of the presentness of the past, not the past of the Civil War, but the personal pasts of the people of Crawford, a remote village in the mountains of Virginia. Their pasts survive as memories, sometimes quiescent, but never forgotten, never without effect, and happily, never quite insurmountable.
At the heart of the novel is a bitter tale with a sweetish ending about John and Penny Bone. They had a mere few months together before John landed a 20-year jail sentence for manslaughter. His crime was throwing a bottle of beer from a car. The bottle struck and killed a child a child he never saw. He scarcely sees his own newborn child either. Believing Penny's life will be ruined by waiting for him, he insists they forget each other once the jailhouse doors close behind him: no visits, no letters, no baby pictures, nothing.
Of course, they don't forget. Six years later Penny and her daughter Tory are living with her Aunt Clare, an elderly good-time girl. Their neighbors include Morgan Tiller, who looks out for them, and Henry and Myra Gault, who have dedicated their lives to running a tiny school. John and Penny in their time were favorite pupils, as was little Terry Landon, the first African-American child they admitted.
That was in the late-1950s and Henry Gault believed he was doing the right thing. It went swimmingly for a couple of years, then one day, right around the time that John Bone was awaiting his trial for manslaughter, Terry got on the schoolbus and was never seen again. His disappearance haunts the Gaults, and it haunts the imaginations of the townspeople, too.
Some think that the "Gypsy Man" took Terry. Years ago he supposedly spirited away Wilbur, the child of the rich family in the old plantation house. Then again, maybe Wilbur himself is the Gypsy Man. Whatever the case, the people of Crawford believe that the Gypsy Man periodically reappears signaling his presence by piles of leaves and stones or by setting house fires as a warning that he is about to whisk away another child.
When Morgan's porch is burned and Tory discovers an old tombstone virtually in their backyard, Penny believes Tory is the child at risk. And when Aunt Clare's latest "boyfriend" makes off with the housekeys, Penny is seriously spooked.
Ghosts and hauntings always trail clouds of unrelieved sorrow from the past, and Robert Bausch's novel is full of it: the sorrows of families bereaved by World War II, the harshness of a racially divided society, and the sadness of children under stress. From the birthmarked Wilbur of long ago, to Denise, the girl felled by John Bone's bottle, and poor lost Terry Landon, the little ones who people his narrative are as doomed as those who wander Charles Dickens' pages.
Mr. Bausch's narrative strategy emphasizes the solitariness at the heart of human experience. His characters take turns as narrator, each telling a portion of the story or rather a portion of his or her own story. Penny describes how she lives without the husband she loves and of her fears for Clare and Tory. John tells of his life in prison. Clare tries to explain why she needs the worthless boyfriends she jaunts about with. Morgan muses on the Gypsy Man. Henry and Myra Gault recall the children they have taught and their abiding sorrow at Terry's disappearance. Sheriff Paxton demonstrates his irritation with the slow and superstitious ways of mountain people.
This narrative technique revs up apprehension because it reveals conflicting ideas and interests, so when some prisoners escape the jail where John Bone is incarcerated, it's clear that lives will take new turns. Perhaps John will be released early because he saved the life of a guard. Meanwhile, Peach, a pathological killer, makes his way to Crawford, where he becomes the latest in Clare's long list of scary boyfriends. And Gault digs out the newfound gravestone only to make a horrific discovery.
As each narrator contributes a mite to the tale, Mr. Bausch shows the cussed way things happen, coincidence and fate taking a wicked hand at almost every turn. The suspense is terrible. With Peach on the run, Clare at his mercy, and Paxton bumbling from misjudgment into occasional truth, "The Gypsy Man" reaches chilling moments of real pity and real terror as tragedy stalks up the mountain to Crawford.
The conclusion, though, is less than tragic and also a little less than satisfying. Penny, John and Tory see their way to a new and endurable life. Penny also realizes, "That we carry a little [of the Gypsy Man] around inside us like he don't need to be here, we bring him back anyway …" But while Mr. Bausch here artfully portrays imagination as the engine of emotional growth, he undercuts it by allowing one of his narrators to mislead us.
Unreliable narrators suggest the unknowability of others' motivations and the impossibility of objectivity. At their most effective, they free characters from their authors' machinations, and let them live in readers' minds. As Mr. Bausch's Henry Gault knows, "Experience is preferable to imagination only in the full flower of the present moment … once each microsecond passes into memory, it becomes imaginary… . So finally, it's all in the imagination and not real."
But when one narrator conceals crucial information about events and therefore about the mainspring of his actions, the novel cants toward crime fiction, inviting readers to spot the guilty party faster than the non-too-bright policeman, Sheriff Paxton. This circumscribes both novel and reader by drawing attention away from the themes of memory and imagination, and from Mr. Bausch's evocation of the rural South a generation or so ago.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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