Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

Short Story Collection Review    

 

 

The Stories of Richard Bausch
By Richard Bausch
HarperCollins, 2003
Hardcover, $29.95 (651 pages)
ISBN: 0-06-019649-1
 
 
 

In the “Preface” to his short story collection, Richard Bausch writes that he began writing short stories as if “to do so were a sort of apprenticeship to the novel.  One learns later in life that the two forms have their own demands, and that the difficulties peculiar to each will age a writer as much as anything else will age him.”  If so, Bausch has aged gracefully.  Each of his stories exhibits structural and thematic nuances that make for emotional and at times anger-inducing experiences. 

Bausch is at his best when he presents the mundane as deterministic, as in “Wise Men at Their Ends” and “1-900.”  His ability to showcase how habit and routine breed complacency, grief, and even tragedy resonates throughout his works, leading the reader to recognize how pain circulates in everyday language, in common relationships, as in “Par” and “Letter to the Lady of the House.”  He writes in “Par” that, despite their friends’ feeling that they were “headed for disaster,” Regina and Dallworth complemented one another: she “craved simple human conversation” and he “discovered in himself a capacity for description.”  The story concludes Dallworth’s dream of Regina discarding her ex-husband’s clothes that were “outlandish, out of all scale, and too big for any normal man.”  With such details, Bausch foregrounds the proximity of despair and happiness and of vulnerability and power in ways that challenge the reader’s sense of the distance between everyday life and drama.   

Tracing relationships and events with dialogue entirely unbroken by additional narration, stories like “The Voices from the Other Room” and “1-900” allow the reader to enter into characters’ conversations quite viscerally.  Bausch artfully creates the awkward pauses, the unfunny jokes, the misunderstood phrases, and the rapid shifts in mood typical of conversations between lovers, making the reader almost uncomfortable at times—and a silent participant in private discussions of fidelity, sex, jealousy, competition, and utter incomprehension.  He concludes “The Voices,” for instance, with the following exchange: 

Sweetie?
What Larry.
Do you love me?
I just need to hear it once.
Honey?
Aren’t you going to?
Ellen?
Sweetie, please.
Ellen?

With that, the story ends, leaving the reader to grapple with the unanswered questions, the unanswered desires, and the overwhelming sense of futility resulting from what began as two voices discussing a just-consummated sexual encounter. 

Bausch articulates emotional gray areas with potency, making the reader privy to the ambiguities surrounding divorce, filial obligation, death, and parenthood.  For example, he describes a mother attacking a man with her purse when he insults her daughter, a woman who plans to leave her husband until he—a fireman—returns from a fire that killed his friend and burned his hands, and a four foot nine inch tall man who has to go to the emergency room after describing his brother’s girlfriend as “ugly as month-old pizza.”  His protagonists are often not the figures we aspire to be, but rather the people we know we are grappling with dilemmas that in an ethical universe would probably not be dilemmas at all.  Within each story, Bausch highlights how individuals’ doubts comprise them—and how people’s lives are often built not of their achievements or their intrinsically valuable qualities, but instead of their ability to deal with suffering, which is typically (directly or indirectly) self-induced.     

Bausch’s novels include Hello to the Cannibals, The Last Good Time, and In the Night Season.  His stories have appeared in anthologies such as American Short Stories, O’Henry, New Stories from the South, and Pushcart, as well as in magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook, The Southern Review, and Playboy.  

 

Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

© 2004, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved