Something Is Out There
Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $25.95
We surrender our attention to a well-told tale with a particular anticipation, opening ourselves to its rhythms of disclosure, its promise of resolution. And then, because we can hold a story whole in our mind, we replay it and marvel over the subtle clues that point to its inevitable or wildly unexpected conclusion. Such stories become even more intriguing with repeated readings: They are the kind of short stories that Richard Bausch has been creating with artistry and compassion since the early 1980s.
A Southerner who often writes of life in Virginia and Memphis, Tenn., Bausch has written 10 exemplary novels, including “Hello to the Cannibals” (2002) and “Peace” (2008). Yet it is his stories that wow us the most -- concentrated works of tremendous resonance focused, most often, on the mortar and stones of marriage, and all that brings matrimony crashing down. The retrospective 2003 volume “The Stories of Richard Bausch” contains 42 superb tales one can’t imagine besting, until you read the 11 stories in Bausch’s eighth, and newest, collection, “Something Is Out There.”
Parties in fiction often act as accelerants, when all the attendant worry and anticipation surrounding them stoke sudden conflagrations between characters and abruptly end their desiccated relationships. In the adeptly modulated opening story, “The Harp Department in Love,” a neighbor’s impending surprise party for her dubious husband adds to musician Josephine Stanislowski’s misery over the state of her own marriage. John, 30 years older than she, is a professor emeritus of music, and she was “once his most gifted student.” Josephine has been happy, but John has been resentful and suspicious of her youth. As Bausch maps the new, molten terrain that erupts and spreads like lava between them, he tests the resilience of trust, the foundation of intimate relationships.
A surprise party triggers trenchant change in “Byron the Lyron,” a tender, witty and soulful story of loss, anger and grief. As his zestful mother, Georgia, nears death, Byron, her only child, is betrayed by his lover Reese. Struggling to do what’s right for his mother, who has always been his best friend, and for others who will also miss her, Byron thinks, “kindliness is work."As Georgia makes the most of her last days, Bausch evinces profound respect for the slow process of a natural death, and how, in its aftermath, survivors learn to walk the perimeters of death’s vast, shadowed craters, seeking beauty even in a diminished world.
Bausch’s inquiries into trust and its violation inspire variations on the archetypal lost paradise story. An everyday, middle-class home becomes a modest Garden of Eden in “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife,” a tale of catastrophic sexual curiosity. Elsewhere, couples start out hoping that marriage will provide sanctuary, only to realize that their unions have been poisoned from the start. In “Immigration,” for example, an Irishman’s pursuit of the papers he needs to stay in the States complicates his relationship with his high-strung American wife. Like most of the stories in this involving collection, most of the “action” is internal, a precisely rendered churning of anxious thoughts and rogue feelings, tricky memories and self-chidings, unvoiced questions and fears. But in other tales, unrequited longings, pent-up fury and sheer desperation result in explosive situations.
A marriage is gradually disintegrating in the indelible title story, “Something Is Out There,” until forces conspire to create a crisis of escalating proportions. A blizzard is shutting down roads in Virginia when a former business partner shows up and shoots Kent in the leg. His sister, wife and their two sons return to the house, while he stays overnight in the hospital. As the snow swirls and piles high during the long night, Paula, his wife, realizes her husband has put them all at terrible risk. “Blood” is a classic Southern story of family claustrophobia, obsession and escalating tension -- friction between brothers over work, care of their stroke-afflicted yet still tough mother and a woman -- that combusts in sudden, mad violence.
Bausch’s evocative scene-setting addresses every sense, whether he’s describing a modest kitchen or a dark bedroom, the inside of an old car or a blazing golf course. His dialogue is staccato in its pace and volleys yet saturated with unspoken feelings, and his body language is perfectly choreographed. As his stories turn on the axis of trust and betrayal, a spectrum of loneliness is illuminated.
Finally, in “Sixty-Five Million Years,” Bausch leaves the combat, confusion, doubt and disappointment of marriage behind to portray a priest in a small parish who has lost his spiritual vitality. All seems barren, rote and useless to him, until a boy, a stranger, enters the confessional booth and asks odd, difficult questions. Startled by the boy’s intensity, intelligence and anger, Father Hennessey is galvanized and wants to respond, only to find that he has little to offer, a failure that “felt like a kind of secret quake, a collapsing, deep.”
This is a staggering metaphor in these days of horrific earthquakes. But let us remain in the realm of fiction, where one can imagine a writer of Bausch’s sensitivity as the psyche’s seismologist, taking the measure of every fault, stress, shift, tremor and collision, and reminding us that stability and love are often as much a matter of choice as of fate, a perpetual work-in-progress, a hard-won and forever besieged state of grace.
Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, editor of the fiction anthology “In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness” and book critic for Chicago Public Radio. Her author interviews are collected in “Writers on the Air.”