THE FIREMAN'S WIFE and Other StoriesBy Richard Bausch Linden Press/Simon and Schuster. 219 pp. $18.95
The sound of Richard Bausch's characters talking, to themselves or to others, is rarely aggravating when they have things that need to be told. Most do.
In "Letter to the Lady of the House," an elderly man relieves the bitterness of his marriage by writing his wife "without the aggravating sound of me talking to you." The husband's eloquent and heartfelt letter evokes his first glimpse, years ago, of marriage's "great mystery," and concludes that they, after all, have been "in love over time."
Love over time can be abraded, enervated, affirmed, Bausch implies in the short stories of "The Fireman's Wife," by familiarity, temperament, revelation. On her wedding night the twice-married woman in "Wedlock" watches her "boyish, lighthearted" groom transform into a taunting, frightening stranger, goaded by sexual jealousy. In "The Eyes of Love" a husband, exasperated by his wife's moods, yearns for the secret intimacy they once knew, and although he understands what underlies her behavior, he is shocked when he suddenly appraises her with the cold, unloving eyes of an outsider. The light that early love casts upon the present does not always glow: It can glare and chill as well.
That Bausch is much concerned with how we discover truth about ourselves is evident throughout this, his third collection. His characters need not come to it by exotic routes: It is there in their daily lives, waiting. He brings to them and their predicaments a sincere and mature vision, illuminating those moments when they learn what it means, for better or worse, to share their souls with others.
The strengths in these stories frequently lie in passages of exposition, defining and characterizing moments of awareness, whereas the events that frame them are sometimes too commonplace to engender the drama of story. Carol, the protagonist of "Equity," must, along with her sisters, face up to her mother's worsening Alzheimer's disease. A "quite amazing" parent, Edith nursed Carol through a nervous breakdown with love and wisdom, and now Carol vacillates over committing her to a home, partly because she has yet to confront truths about herself. When she experiences a "fit" of recognition, the ordinary events preceding it dissolve away, become almost incidental; yet Bausch's sympathetic insight gathers momentum, and the sheer passion of Carol's revelations, of what she comes to see, attains a power of its own.
As to Jane, "The Fireman's Wife," neither she nor the tedium of her life can carry 33 pages. Dull and vague, she wanders along revealing both her disaffection and her limitations as a fictional character. When finally, with a "tidal shifting inside her," she feels "the full weight of her unhappiness," the effect is forced. Just what ails Jane, apart from boredom and a husband with the emotions of a boy, is hard to say, harder to care about, and no amount of rhetorical heightening can make memorable her discontent.
But Marilyn of "The Brace" has edges and a sensibility that catch one's interest. The daughter of a famous playwright, she recollects an unloving childhood that gives substance to her anger and her apprehensions; her egotistical father's breezy visits disparage the husband she loves and the conventional marriage she covets. An intelligent observer of past and present, Marilyn as narrator shapes fully her character and that of her dad, and her story's ending has what Jane's lacks at every turn -- surprise, a subtle, disturbing realization.
There is surprise too in the simple, affecting "Luck": A young man -- who has chosen not college but a partnership painting houses with his alcoholic father -- has to cover for him when he takes off in the middle of a job, and in so doing reveals the quality of his love.
And in "Old West" Bausch gives the hackneyed Western a fresh twist. In this sequel to the movie "Shane," our hero returns, "gone very badly to seed." The narrator, as a boy the sole witness to Shane's stirring gunfight, can't match this balding, paunchy bounty hunter with the romantic hero of his memory. His doubts grow as truth plays back and forth with myth, and when a cowering Shane is killed in another gunfight, romance collides with reality and he recalls the true details of the original event, but now "without words." Yet he goes on for years recounting the tale on vaudeville stages, Shane still intact in mythic vividness, a creature of language, unfettered by truth.
The reviewer is the author of "Eyestone," a book of stories.