It's one for the record books: America's twin novelists, the distinction of being identical. But there was a time when Richard and Robert Bausch were desperate to be different. Like the grade-school show in which they were forced to get up on stage and sing "Me and My Shadow."

"I don't know about you," muttered an indignant Robert, "but I ain't anybody's damn shadow!"

Maybe not. But since then, the 36-year-old Virginia writers have developed a sibling symbiosis that makes the Osmonds look like the Odd Couple: They served in the Air Force together ("on the buddy system"), married within a year of each other, attended George Mason University--where both now teach writing and share an office--live within 10 minutes of each other and read one another's work every week.

And this month they made publishing history as the sole gemini contenders of American letters. In spades: Richard's second novel, "Take Me Back," has been nominated for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner fiction prize, to be awarded next month; and Newsweek calls "On the Way Home," Robert's just-published first novel, "compelling . . . strong and sure as Bausch's tale is, it gets only stronger at the end."

It has become almost impossible for new literary writers to get published in today's strangled market, and you could drain your Duracells calculating the odds on this fraternal double play. But the Bausches never doubted. During 10 years of obstinate persistence and reams of rejection letters, each felt the other's success was "inevitable." (Despite the equally inevitable name confusion: "The first story I sent to Esquire fiction editor Gordon Lish," says Robert, "he sent me a letter back saying, 'Ah, Richard, it's wonderful!' ") "I've never felt that there was anything I could do that he couldn't," says Richard, in a rare flurry of singular pronouns: After Richard sold his first novel, "Real Presence" (1980), Robert recalls, he announced the news by saying, "They're really flipping over the book--they like the way we write!"

Both write about explosions in the nuclear family, plain people suddenly blasted by a critical mass of woe. "Take Me Back" depicts the decay of the Brinhart household as the husband sinks into alcoholism, the wife into self-inflicted depression and the young son into morbid self-absorption. "I think the worst thing that's happened to this country is the death of the family," says Richard. "I don't think I'll ever write about anything else." He thinks of himself as "counter to what the culture wants. Everybody wants you to cope. Well, my characters don't cope. There is no objective world," and "your perception of the situation is the situation."

In "On the Way Home," a couple whose son reportedly has been killed in Vietnam moves to Florida to rebuild their lives. But their world warps again when the son abruptly appears, painfully transfigured and possibly dangerous, and they discover that "love changes or it dies," says Robert.

"People ask me, 'How come you write about despair and death?' " says Robert, who might be speaking for both. "And I say, because our childhood was so perfect. It was an extraordinary disillusionment to find out that the world wasn't like that."

That our is a threat. "We're freaks--all twins are freaks--but I don't want people reading my books for that reason. Actually, we're very different," says Robert, citing the obvious: Richard rents a doggedly respectable split-level in Fairfax; Robert lives in Oakton with a one-acre truck garden. Richard plays basketball for relaxation; Robert shoots pool for an hour a day--"It's like taking your brain out and soaking it in hot water overnight."

Although they will fall into twin-shtick in their sunny office at GMU--blowing mock kisses to each other, or performing a faultlessly choreographed fake fist fight ("we got arrested in Illinois once for doing that")--and despite the the shocking congruity of their smooth, boyish faces pink as a rabbit's ear, they have contrived distinct images. Robert, more shy and cerebral, looks like an Amish chicken-farmer with an accounting degree; and Richard, with his winsome, shambling manner, could be the mechanic who tells you with a 60-watt grin that your transmission is doomed.

But these distinctions pale beside the eerie rapport. "Most people don't know the meaning of the word 'alter ego,' " says Robert. Each instinctively feels the other's "deepest fears," and, "If I hear a joke or see a movie, I know exactly how he's going to feel about it. It never fails." Except once: Robert went to see "Easy Rider" and "thought it was the greatest film I'd ever seen. But Dick didn't like it. I was really astounded!" Viewing it again years later, Robert found himself agreeing with his brother.

Perhaps it's a good thing that they read one another's work in progress. Often one brother's anecdote will become a passage in the other's book. And once when they each wrote a story for a literary review, Robert says, "we found that we had nearly identical imagery in several passages."

"Imagery" is as close as the brothers get to the the arty argot and thick intellectual gumbo ladled out by many young literary writers. "I love imagining" is Robert's esthetic credo. Ditto for Richard. With the febrile dreamscapes in his mind, "I could live in the same house for the rest of my life. I don't care if I never see Europe."

When stuck, Richard follows William Stafford's advice--"Lower your standards and keep on going," and has no patience with writers' blocks or agonizing: "Look, Haydn wrote 104 symphonies. You don't have to have all this soul-anguish. It's just something you do." As for the more academic and experimental forms of fiction, such as the work of fellow PEN/Faulkner nominee Donald Barthelme, Richard says, "I can't even remember what he's saying while he's saying it!"

A colleague calls Richard "very unprofessorial . . . somewhat in the mold of the hard-drinking, hard-smoking writer." With a certain prankster brio: When GMU rejected a prospective faculty member on the basis that he was a minor regional writer, Bausch and his colleagues and fellow novelists Susan Shreve and Stephen Goodwin showed up for a public reading wearing T-shirts that said "Minor Regional Writer."

Regional indeed: The Bausch brothers were raised in Washington and area suburbs, with five red-haired brothers and sisters, a mother who "knew how to love mightily" and whose delicate religious drawings were a source of clan pride, and a father who is the mythic center of the Bausch family oral epic. A semi-pro baseball pitcher and Homeric raconteur, he was nominated by his kids in 1955 for The Washington Post's Ideal Father contest. "I grew up listening to my old man telling stories," says Richard. "He was incredible, keeping people enthralled for such long periods."

As children, the twins wanted no part of each other's identity. Richard was intent on the priesthood until low grades at Wheaton High kept him out of the seminary; Robert was interested in politics. But both soon started writing: Robert first, with a 484-page Civil War novel in eighth grade; Richard in the early '60s. "I don't think I'd be writing if Kennedy hadn't been killed." He had admired the president's enthusiasm for poetry, and after the assassination, "I was going to pick up the torch." By 1965, their urges had merged and they were writing stories while stationed together in Illinois, where Richard was performing as half of a folk duo, Dick and Dave. When his partner was killed in an auto wreck, the twins returned to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College, later transferring to GMU.

After graduation in 1974, Richard took a year at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. "We ran up a big phone bill," says Robert, who had taken a teaching job in Northern Virginia. When Richard returned, he too found part-time openings at George Mason and NVCC, confounding creditors by putting Vepco's check in Amoco's payment envelope, and vice versa: "The switch would give us about six weeks."

Both kept writing, but neither published much. Finally they gave up short stories for novels. "In a way, I didn't want to sell my book first," says Robert, "Dick had devoted more time to it." So he had, but there were nights, Richard says, when "I would pray, 'Lord, I know people out there are starving and all, but please let Bob publish his book.' "

Maybe he should have mentioned the advance. Robert got $4,000 for "On the Way Home," and Richard has scarcely fared better. His first novel, "Real Presence" (1980), was well-reviewed and selected as a Book of the Month Club alternate. So when he finished "Take Me Back," "I wanted $20,000," he says, but "it wasn't even in the double figures." Dial printed 8,500 copies.

Richard, who teaches full time at George Mason, faces these figures with the sanguine poise of a veteran suburban debtor: "All I want from the big check is to get even." And Robert squeezes a living out of teaching two classes at George Mason and five at NVCC. But even if he were offered a better-paying job elsewhere, "I doubt that I could take it," he says, since it would mean leaving Richard. "I don't think I'd write if he weren't in the world." Similarly, when Robert recently developed a lump under his arm (it later proved benign), and doctors raised the possibility of cancer, Richard told his brother, "It's not going to be worth going on without you."

With the PEN/Faulkner nomination, Richard has the edge in esteem. "To be given that kind of approval by your peers--hell, by your fathers," he says, "is like a break in the clouds where this big voice comes down and says, 'This is my son in whom I am well pleased.' "

"I often think that 100 years from now," says Robert, "they'll only be reading one Bausch's books, and it'll be Dick's." But when Richard heard Robert read a passage from "On the Way Home," he became so envious he wanted to withdraw "Real Presence" from the publisher. The modesty is typical. Even relaxing at home, with the beer cans sweating rings onto the kitchen table, Richard's conversation lists inexorably away from himself. "There is nothing more ugly than the naked ego," he says, and if his own threatens, there is always his wife, Karen. "I tell her," he says, quoting a review, "that I am 'a young American realist of major status.' And she says, 'Empty the garbage.' "

She edits the work he regards as a joint effort. But when the book is finished, and "we've both worked incredibly hard," he says, "everybody comes up to me" with congratulations. "There's a certain amount of jealousy," Karen says, so "I used to hate parties . . . and that awful word 'housewife'--it's like saying you're a hooker." Richard is hardly more gregarious. Although his friends include Tim O'Brien and C.D.B. Bryan, who wrote "Friendly Fire," as well as Shreve and Goodwin, "I always avoid literary gatherings--I get paid to talk about literature, I don't want to stand around and do it. I'd rather talk about changing the carburetor on a Ford than Ford Madox Ford."

He writes on a plywood table in his blond-paneled rec room, where the next book, "A Safe Place," is taking shape. It is about a man whose father brutalized him in childhood; years later, "he's an alcoholic, he's bought the program" and is fighting for his psychic life. Robert's next work is no more cheerful. It's about a man who has been reincarnated twice and can recall his former lives. And deaths: After the "bright lights and euphoria," there's "a horrible odor and it feels like somebody has stretched your skin over a dogfight."

Same. Different. "We don't want to duplicate each other or be grouped together," says Robert, although he is wistful about a faded project de deux to recycle their old short stories. "We had been thinking of rewriting Boccaccio's 'Decameron,' " in a modern setting where everyone flees to the country in an energy crisis and begins exchanging tales. "And it would say on the cover, 'By the Bausch brothers.' "