- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010


By Richard Bausch

Knopf, $25.95, 268 pages


If you aren’t a fan of Richard Bausch’s fiction you should be. And if you have never read anything by him, and don’t know where in his huge body of work - 11 novels and seven previous short story collections - to start, this book would be a fine place to jump in. Just don’t read it late at night with killer winds howling outside and the power about to go.

Take, for example, “Something Is Out There,” whose title is enough to scare some people. Four members of an extended family, two adult women and two teenage boys, are getting snowed into their isolated rural house in Virginia’s Blue Ridge as they wait, and wait and wait, for an older boy to arrive. The two women are Paula, the mother of the two boys, and her aunt, Dora, the stepmother of Chris, who is heading their way in his Jeep from Winchester, where he goes to college. Their mounting sense of dread is fueled by what happened earlier in the day.

Kent, Paula’s husband, was working on the roof when Brice, his business partner, drove up, got out of his car, walked over toward Kent and shot him through the leg with a pistol, causing Kent to fall off the roof. Brice then got back in his car and drove away. Later that day he was caught by the state police and locked up. The foursome has just returned from the hospital, where they’ve learned that Kent will be fine. The bullet went through his leg without doing any permanent damage. But there’s more than enough previous damage to deal with. Paula has been thinking about leaving Kent, “… tension over money, absences, drinking, unexplained aspects of failing business, sadness generally in the bedroom.” And now this.

The story’s surface tension revolves around Chris - will he make it through the storm? - but Mr. Bausch skillfully lays on a much worse problem. Kent had recently fired Brice, but was their business legal or was it perhaps drugs? Halfway through the tale, headlights sweep up the road and into the drive, but it is not Chris after all. It’s a large man who says he has papers for Kent to sign, but then he asks about Chris. He leaves. Or does he, wonders Paula. The man becomes this story’s “something out there.” The foreboding is all but tactile.

Richard Bausch, now in his mid-‘60s and living and teaching in Memphis, Tenn., (where he holds the Moss Chair of Excellence in the Writers Workshop at the University of Memphis) has spent a good deal of time in Virginia. Before getting his master’s degree from the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he graduated from George Mason University and later taught there as well as at other schools.

Several of the stories are set in Virginia (and the sense of place is pitch-perfect) but quite a few take place in Memphis. But the place is not the point of these stories. The point is that the people he creates are troubled souls living troubled lives - the son who rejects his parents but then must go home again (which made me think of Robert Frost’s dark definition: “Home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in”), the wife who cheats on her husband because he’s too nice, the waitress who tries to make the arrival of a stranger portentous and meaningful. As an epigraph, Mr. Bausch uses this quote from Robert Stone: “Perhaps you know Malraux’s ‘Anti-Memoirs’? His priest tells us that people are much more unhappy than one might think … and that there is no such thing as a grownup.”

In “Byron the Lyron,” a gay son visits his dying mother in the hospital only to encounter the lover who has just left him. He’s torn by seeing how fond his mother is of the lover and by her failing condition. “The Harp Department in Love” is about the troubles of a May-December marriage between two musicians, a highly talented young woman and her great man of a husband whose future may just be behind him. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is “Blood,” which presents the almost biblical tale of a young man who is in unrequited love with his older brother’s good but-unhappy-because-neglected wife.

Mr. Bausch’s quote from Malraux by way of Robert Stone lets us know that few, if any, of the characters who populate this fictional landscape are either happy or grown up. Jimmy, in “Trophy,” is losing both his wife and his business, but is saved by the kindness of friends, not strangers. The young married couple in “Immigration” oversleep on the most important day of their young lives. There’s hardly a marriage in the whole collection that’s what one might call solid; most are over or about to be or the wife or the husband (or both) wishes it were.

Given all that, you might think reading this book would be a downer, but it definitely is not. For one thing, there’s the author’s wonderful prose. In the very fine “Sixty-five Million Years,” an old priest is torn by the doubts of a brilliant and very troubled young boy, who begins what is supposed to be his confession by saying, “Father, the dinosaurs lived here for millions of years. We’ve only been here for a little fraction of a second in terms of evolution. What was God thinking?”

Later in the same story, the priest, agonizing over his inability to help the boy, wanders out in the night. “The first snow of the year hit in the middle of the next week, a dusting not more than an inch, and when it cleared a bright moon shone. The world looked changed; there was a silvery softness to the light. He walked out in it, late, past midnight, unable to sleep. The church loomed over him, its shadow printed on the sifted dust of snow. He saw his own breath, and looked at the shadows of the houses beyond the trees.”

For another thing, the reader may notice that so many of Mr. Bausch’s sentences are simple subject-verb-object constructions, few adjectives and hardly any adverbs at all. The effect of this deceptively simple style is to reiterate the seriousness of the content.

Finally, one of the joys of reading Richard Bausch is his Faulknarian sense that despite all the sadness, the tsoris, the turmoil of the people in these stories, one feels they will, to borrow a word from the master, “endure.” It’s not an accident that Richard Bausch is a past chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. This is the work of an excellent writer at the top of his form.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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