SPIRITS And Other Stories By Richard Bausch Linden Press/Simon and Schuster 237 pp. $15.95
RICHARD BAUSCH is a master of the short story. In nine distinctive, unforgettable and marvelously crafted tales, he brings to life characters and situations as vivid and compelling as any in contemporary literature. Spirits and Other Stories is a collection that ranks with those of Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Ann Phillips in its range, its risks and its raw power, but Bausch's literary voice is reminiscent of no one else's; he is an original.
To read this book is to attend, hungry, the most fabulous buffet in town. You load your plate time and again, and everything you sample is terrific. Even when you're full, the memory of surprising tastes draws you back to the table.
There isn't a weak story here, though some pieces are more ambitious than others. In the long, seven-part "Spirits," which ends the book, the narrator, a passive young college instructor, is inexorably drawn into the psychological intrigues of an illustrious colleague and his wife. Their reality both parallels and supersedes his own, and only through an act of conscious disillusionment is he able to extricate himself and return to his own, less-charged, existence. Tension builds line upon line in this deceptively quiet unfolding, as if the grace and pacing of Peter Taylor's "The Old Forest" has been wedded to the understated profundity of Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. Like the protagonist, the reader is imprisoned in an imagined world where none of the familiar rules apply.
Many of Bausch's stories deal with the reflection upon a dramatic event -- a death, a divorce, a loss -- just past. In "Ancient History," a young man grapples with the altered roles within a family constellation following the collapse of his father. Accompanying his mother for a Christmas visit to her sister-in-law, Aunt Lois, he must relinquish the very innocence and naivete' that have previously been the traits with which he was most identified and in which he took most pride. The situation, with high potential for sentimentality, is redeemed by the author's unerring skill. The characters are so fresh, particularly the unflinching Aunt Lois, that you forget any writer ever dealt before with coming of age. The writing suggests more than it states, leaving the reader with ideas that spring from the story but are by no means tied to it.
"Police Dreams" chronicles the confusion of a marriage in which the husband was "smack-dab in the middle of happily ever after" and the wife was, unguessed by him, frustrated and unhappy. When she announces her intention never to return, he is incredulous -- "Jean, we didn't even have an argument . . . I mean, what is this about?" -- but we the readers can sympathize with both characters, with the unfairness of disappointment.
The remarkable opening story, "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona," again recounts the deterioration of a nuclear family, this time because of the narrator's alcoholism, the nagging result of his own physical abuse as a child. The past intrudes upon and spoils the present, a theme that recurs in different ways in "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr" and "Contrition."
But in the world of Spirits, life is not all loss, love is not all unrequited, as demonstrated by "Wise Men at Their End." Here a difficult octogenerian, Theodore Weathers, finds himself at odds with his well-intentioned, widowed daughter-in-law, Judy. "It was like having another wife, he told her, and she took this as praise. She never seemed to hear things as they were meant, and it was clear that in her mind she was being quite wonderful -- cheerful and sweet and witty in the face of his irascibility and pigheadedness. She said he was entitled to some measure of ill temper, having lived so long; and she took everything he said and did with a kind of proprietary irony, as if another person were there to note how unmanageable and troublesome he could be."
When Judy attempts a kind of match-making and brings her elderly friend Alice Karnes to visit, Theodore is at first irritated and then, almost against his will, intrigued. Immediately, however, he suffers a fall that requires painful hospitalization and it is there, in traction, that their odd, affecting, cranky and totally believable courtship takes place. Disaffection is constantly and earnestly proclaimed, but the story concludes with Alice and Theodore sitting together on his front porch, looking "like a couple long married, still in the habit of love."
Finally, in perhaps the most striking piece of all, Bausch gives us a portrait of human bonding that seems somehow an antidote and a hope for all the losses endured by other characters. "What Feels Like the World" is the story of the protective, hopeless devotion of a man for his grand-daughter, in his custody since the loss of her parents. He wants to spare her every injury, every hurt, but she is a realistic, pragmatic child determined not to run from any challenge. "When she looks at him . . . he sees something scarily unchildlike in her expression, some perplexity that she seems to pull down into herself."
At the end he has no choice but to come to the school gymnastic program where her humiliation at being the only child in the class who cannot perform a simple handspring seems assured. He despairs that there is nothing he can do to help her, to lift the burdens that will come to her in life, but he shows up. "She stands in the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her legs looking too heavy in the tights. She's rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, getting ready. It grows quiet. Her arms swing slightly, back and forth, and now, just for a moment, she's looking at the crowd, her face hiding whatever she's feeling. It's as if she were merely curious as to who is out there, but he knows she's looking for him, searching the crowd for her grandfather, who stands on his toes, unseen against the far wall, stands there thinking his heart might break, lifting his hand to wave."
That passage, beautiful, restrained, moral and wise, is emblematic of the writing and the vision that makes Spirits and Other Stories a cause of celebration. Richard Bausch, who lives in suburban Washington, has created an enduring work of art.
Michael Dorris' novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," has just been published.