By Richard Bausch
HarperCollins. 403 pp. $24.95
Some novelists are such gifted stylists and storytellers -- with profound insight into the best and worst that resides deep inside the human heart -- that a smaller person than I just might hate their guts. Okay, even a person my size might experience serious envy. Richard Bausch is such a writer. For a quarter-century now, in novels and short stories, he has turned a mirror on us and our next-door neighbors and shown us how real people live and laugh and cry. And, yes, how they get into all kinds of mischief.
His new novel, Thanksgiving Night , is big and sprawling but (by design) anything but epic. It's downright domestic. The book is set in the autumn of 1999, a new millennium is approaching, and on the surface everything is just fine in Point Royal, Va. Except that the marriage of Will and Elizabeth Butterfield is starting to fray as Will nears 50. And Will's mother, Holly, and her Aunt Fiona -- who is actually about Holly's age -- are fighting (again), and Fiona has climbed up on the roof of their house for the night. (These women are known, appropriately, as "the Crazies.") And Will's two grown children from his first marriage are squabbling once more and planning to bring their grievances with them to Virginia for a visit.
Meanwhile, Oliver, the building contractor who has been retained to literally divide Holly and Fiona's house in half so each woman can have a separate living space, is drinking too much. Oliver's daughter, Alison, a police officer in Point Royal, has separated from her husband, and her best friend has moved away. She has a little girl who is alarmingly quiet and a sweet and sensitive and sleepwalking teenage son who still likes to sleep in her bed when he is troubled. The boy's English teacher -- who happens to be Elizabeth Butterfield -- thinks the world of the young man, which is a good thing; his math teacher does, too, which is not good at all, given his unnatural longings for the boy.
Counseling many of this group at different points in the novel is Father John Fire, an elderly priest whose faith is starting to waver and who lives with a younger priest whose religious poetry is at once sincere and laughably bad. Listening to it daily is yet one more cross the erudite and somewhat aristocratic Fire must bear. ("The battering of God outshined the sun/And battered your heart as you said he did, Donne.")
Yes, there are enough major characters in Thanksgiving Night to fill a novel by Tolstoy. But they are all impeccably drawn and so deeply alive that you never need a scorecard or a family tree to keep track of who's who. And while there are myriad plots and subplots swirling throughout the group, perhaps the most central one involves Will and his extramarital dalliance with the lubricious and deeply unstable bartender named Ariana, who has moved in across the street from Will and Elizabeth and is fond of seducing Will at the small bookstore he owns.
In one of my very favorite moments, Ariana and her husband have come to Will and Elizabeth's home for dinner, and Will's anxiety is so palpable that the scene is excruciating, unbearable -- and riveting. Bausch doesn't have to resort to the pyrotechnics of boiled bunnies ("Fatal Attraction") or death by snow globe ("Unfaithful") to dramatize the tension that comes with adultery: He does it better with a few bottles of wine, some jazz on the CD player and a woman who wants to dance.
Bausch is also a master at capturing the wistfulness that can dog us all whenever we give ourselves license to think. Here is Alison, alone, just after she has found herself sobbing while doing the laundry: "The whole condition of the living universe, understood in the viscera and bone, is the feeling of something carved, by courage and necessity, out of fear. Alison thinks of the rabbit foraging in a field, one eye on heaven and what wheels and circles there among the fleecy clouds in the wide, bright blue. She fears loneliness with that same wrenching of the nerves and heart."
Bausch consistently mixes good cheer and humor with longing and (on occasion) despair, sprinkling them all into this satisfying feast of a book that feels authentic and wise. Sure, it's clear that by the time this whole extended crew gathers at Thanksgiving most of their problems will have been resolved. But Bausch is such a companionable writer, and his characters so consistently genuine, that I never stopped turning the pages with enthusiasm, wonder and a delight in life's endless possibilities. ·
Chris Bohjalian is the author of 10 novels, including "Midwives" and "Before You Know Kindness." His new novel, "The Double Bind," will be published in February.