WIVES & LOVERS: Three Short Novels

By Richard Bausch. Perennial. 223 pp. Paperback, $12.95 Richard Bausch's stories are a mixed bag, as likely to be jarringly acute as they are to be melodramatic and contrived. He deals fate with a heavy hand, and he can only strike a detached pose for just so long before you feel him poking you in the ribs.

For the most part, the three short novels in Wives & Lovers -- one new and two previously published -- aren't as pushy. You don't sense the same pressure to come up with a quick payoff, and the first two pieces return him to a scenario that always brings out his best: long marriages where the misery has stretched out for decades. The title tells only part of the story; "Ghosts and Lovers" might be more like it, as these works are less about love and desire than they are about what death reveals about the living.

The new work, "Requisite Kindness," tells its story in reverse: "After" and "Before" the death of 94-year-old Elena Hutton. It starts at her funeral and ends in the days before her death, allowing Bausch to effectively trace Elena's influence through her grandson Brian and her son Henry, who are entirely too much alike. Serial adulterers and heavy drinkers, they arrive at Elena's funeral in the same boat: Henry's wife of 36 years left him months before, and Brian -- the veteran of no fewer than four failed marriages -- was ditched by his latest fiancee after she found out about his latest girlfriend.

Both have come to depend on Elena for something they could never get from their wives: total forgiveness, "some indefinable element of kindly disapproval that reminded them while it absolved them." They are babies, pathetic examples of men who want to grow up to marry a girl just like the girl who married Dad, and with Elena gone, they are adrift.

The death of a family matriarch is used to even greater effect in "Rare & Endangered Species," when a woman's mysterious suicide gradually begins to mirror the discontent of those around her. After breakfast with Harry, her husband of 42 years, 65-year-old Andrea Brewer takes a brief shopping excursion with friends, checks into a motel room and promptly overdoses. The act makes no sense to her distraught family and friends but gradually does to us: A picture emerges of a woman who felt out of step with the world, and who missed her chance at happiness some years before when she chose to stay with Harry rather than pursue a midlife affair with a younger man. Her would-be lover has long since died, and Harry, like Gabriel Conroy in Joyce's "The Dead," has been competing with a ghost ever since.

This, however, is only part of a broader picture; working much like a Robert Altman film, the story freely roams among the people who knew Andrea and those who only knew of her, all stuck in lonely relationships and families that reflect and refract each other. Andrea's pregnant daughter, Maizie, and son, James, become distant from their spouses, who helplessly try to share the loss. Like her mother, Maizie is having a so-far-unconsummated emotional affair -- with a man named Marty, who has grown weary of trying to forge a family with his suspicious wife, Abigail, and her rebellious son, Jason. Similarly, Andrea's friend Pauline -- who is Jason's high school teacher -- is trying to make peace with her late husband's drug-addled daughter, who spends her time with another doper and casually entertains thoughts of killing herself.

The story gradually builds toward a powerful climax with the difficult delivery of Maizie's baby. A story that begins with someone struggling to die ends with someone struggling to be born, and you get a subtle but very powerful sense that there are no more guarantees for the happiness of any of these people than there is for anyone, anywhere. The intricacy works just below the surface, where something's happening and you don't know what until it hits you. It's a masterpiece.

The last story, "Spirits," alas, is a dud. It's about a young writer, recently and not too happily married, staying for the summer at the college where he'll begin teaching in the fall. He moves first into a seedy motel and then gets a chance to house-sit at the luxury apartment of Brooker, a distinguished faculty member with a dazzling wife and a roving eye. The writer's time and thoughts are torn between the two places, both of which are haunted by their present and former occupants: The ex-husband of the motel owner has confessed to molesting and killing a number of young girls, and Brooker has apparently seduced and abandoned a disturbed young woman whose life will turn out just as badly as the killer's victims. Bausch cooks up a lot of drama in the narrator's head between these two men -- one barbaric, one thoughtlessly insensitive -- but in the end the story doesn't amount to much more than a feeble cautionary tale about the necessity of getting one's own life and marriage in order.

The Stories of Richard Bausch from late last year seems to have been deliberately arranged so that anyone reading it straight through wouldn't know which Bausch was coming next: the insightful artist or the scowling little god kicking his characters around, and you often got both. The same holds for Wives & Lovers, but the quality of sadness is richer, particularly in "Rare and Endangered Species." At his best, Bausch conveys a real perception of what e.e. cummings might call the power of life's "intense fragility." *

Rodney Welch writes about books for the Columbia, S.C. Free Times and other newspapers.