By Richard Bausch
Knopf. 171 pp. $19.95
Peace opens with a near-perfect first line for a war novel: "They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other." And the characters keep doing just that through the taut story that unfolds over the next 170 pages -- stumbling forward, trying to find their way across a landscape that they loathe and barely understand but cannot escape.
Richard Bausch is best known as a master of the short story. And Peace is so short and tightly packed that it reads more like an extended short story than a novel. It's a fable about war and redemption, an episode more than a full narrative. Bausch draws his characters with deft strokes and dashes of color, rather than in the rich tapestry of longer fiction. If a novel can be said to create its own world, this one evokes a world that's already in our heads. The images are allusive, fleeting, not quite explained.
Peace centers on a long night in the Monte Cassino area of Italy during the bloody campaign of the winter of 1944. The book opens with a moment of sadistic violence: Sgt. John Glick, the platoon leader, shoots an Italian prostitute who has been with a German soldier who killed two of Glick's men. The innocent woman's death haunts the characters for the rest of book as they debate whether to report the sergeant's act as murder or accept it as part of the random violence of war.
The central character of Peace is Cpl. Robert Marson. He's a baseball-playing, God-fearing American boy who finds himself "alone in the waste of war" and is trying to make his way. He's sick, physically and emotionally, too. "A flatness had settled into his spirit, a dead feeling at the heart," writes Bausch. One of his feet has a blister that has become infected, so that the very act of marching forward is excruciating, but he goes on anyway, as the opening line foretells.
Marson leads a squad of two other soldiers, Benny Joyner and Saul Asch, up a mountain during a snowstorm. The purpose of their mission isn't clear, even to Marson, but the general idea is to see what's on the other side of the hill. With them is an old Italian man named Angelo, treading the snow in frail rope-soled shoes. He promises to be their guide, but Joyner thinks he may be a Fascist spy. They trudge uphill, encountering a dead German soldier and a sniper as they become ever more fatigued and lost. They hear noises that may be a Nazi firing squad executing Jewish villagers over the ridge, but they don't really know what the sounds are, and they can't do anything about them.
We're in the snow of war in this novel, a snow that obscures where we're going and where we've been, that makes it impossible to distinguish friend from foe, and yet the soldiers keep climbing. When one of Marson's men is shot, he sends the others back and continues alone into the hallucinatory center of the book.
Getting lost in the snow of Bausch's Monte Cassino campaign is like being lost in the big muddy in Vietnam or in the red-hot griddle of Baghdad. You're not sure why you're there or how to get out. "You marched into the tide of war and arrived nowhere," says the narrator. The characters aren't sure what choices are moral or immoral amid the brutalization. This is a book about the "good war" against the Nazis, yet it will seem to many readers to resonate with the "bad war" of Iraq. And in that sense, it rightly makes the tidy definitions of good and bad seem misconceived.
Marson is trying to do what is right, and to understand what that means. That tension is resolved at the end of the book in a denouement that seemed to this reader too neat and quick for the book's ambition. The author might answer: That's the way it really happened. For there are hints that the novel is built around a true story told to Bausch by his father, who "served bravely in Africa, Sicily, and Italy," according to the book's dedication.
Bausch has an artisan writer's fine gift for language, and the imagery of Peace is powerful and persistent. But there is not enough space in the book for the characters to fully unpack, and for readers whose idea of a war novel is the 600 dense pages of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, which invents a language and landscape for the Vietnam War, this book may seem too spare and stinting.
In a preface to a 2004 collection of his stories, Bausch said that writing a novel is a question of "staying with it and working it over until it is right, and complete -- all emotions earned, all strands of interest played out, everything resonating as it should, everything as lucid as it can be made without doing violence to the demands of the story." By contrast, he said, a short story is "the world in miniature."
This book is somewhere in between the two forms -- a novella would be the proper term, I guess. That's an awkward length, too long for the diamond solitaire of a story; too short for the jewel box of a novel. The problem is that the themes of Peace are just too big for the spare package Bausch has chosen. It's a powerful tale, well told by one of America's gifted writers, but it reads like a prologue to the larger story that would encompass the world of war he sketches here. ·
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of six novels. His most recent book, "Body of Lies," will appear as a movie this fall.