Robert Bausch, an acclaimed Virginia teacher and writer whose nine novels won praise for their subtle blending of humor with ominous threads of violence and family fault lines, died Oct. 9 at a hospital in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 73.
The cause was multiple myeloma, said his twin brother and fellow novelist, Richard Bausch.
Mr. Bausch, who grew up in the Washington area, spent most of his career teaching in Northern Virginia and, for a time, even shared an office at George Mason University with his brother. The Bausch brothers — identical twins who were both red-haired, bearded and left-handed — were often mistaken for each other and occasionally taught each other’s classes without telling the students.
“Legends, apocrypha and truths hover around their heads like crazed doves,” George Garrett, a former creative writing teacher at the University of Virginia, told The Washington Post in 2002.
Richard Bausch, who now teaches at Chapman University in California, said they did not read each other’s work until it was in print, but their similar sensibilities sometimes led to confusion.
“The first story I sent to Esquire fiction editor Gordon Lish,” Robert Bausch told The Post in 1982, “he sent me a letter back saying, ‘Ah, Richard, it’s wonderful!’ ”
Robert Bausch was an instructor at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College since 1975 and held temporary appointments at other colleges. He led workshops at his home in Stafford, Va., and was a board member of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which promotes literature and teaching.
As a writer, he defied easy classification: His novels and short stories were sometimes set in historical times and sometimes in the recent past; they could be starkly realistic or veer into fantasy; they could be comic, violent and tragic, seemingly at once.
His first novel, “On the Way Home” (1982), examined the lives of a couple who believed their son had been killed in the Vietnam War — only to learn that he had survived after being taken prisoner. When the damaged son returns, everyone has trouble adjusting to the psychic changes wrought by the war — “PTSD before they even named it,” Mr. Bausch later said.
His best-known novel may be “Almighty Me” (1991), about a car salesman who is taken out of his humdrum life by being granted godlike powers for a year. The book formed the basis of “Bruce Almighty,” a 2002 film starring Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston.
Mr. Bausch garnered some of his greatest praise for the 2000 novel “A Hole in the Earth” about an underachieving Northern Virginia teacher trapped on a long, desperate road of regret. All he really wants to do is go to the racetrack and bet on horses, but life gets in the way with a series of complicated family problems. Things get so bad that he ends up living in the tunnels of Washington’s Metro system.
“Robert Bausch has written a courageous and beautiful book — moving, tragic, wise, but also starkly and necessarily comic,” novelist Robert Clark wrote in a Washington Post review. “It moves the literary exploration of manhood not into safe and predictable territory, but onto the shaky and terrifying ground where men’s lives are lived.”
Mr. Bausch was known for his taut, evocative prose style, which he adapted to various historical settings and regional accents. His 2002 novel, “The Gypsy Man,” explored superstition, fears and racial problems in rural Virginia.
“This ain’t like the foothills,” one character says in the novel. “It’s a mountain, high and rocky. You could stand on our front porch and shoot a .22 shell into West Virginia. If anybody could play the piano in that state, you could hear it.”
In “Out of Season” (2005), Mr. Bausch visited a down-at-the-heels Potomac River resort town “that looked like something out of a haunted and disastrous future.” He journeyed to the frontier world of 19th-century Montana in “Far as the Eye Can See” (2014), to a Virginia private school in “In the Fall They Come Back” (2017) and to the locker room of the Washington Redskins in “The Legend of Jesse Smoke” (2016), about the NFL’s first female quarterback. He had recently completed a sequel to “Far as the Eye Can See,” his brother said.
One world Mr. Bausch resisted delving into, at least overtly, was his own past.
“People ask me, ‘How come you write about despair and death?’” he said in 1982. “And I say, because our childhood was so perfect. It was an extraordinary disillusionment to find out that the world wasn’t like that.”
Robert Charles Bausch was born April 18, 1945, at Fort Benning, Ga. He moved with his family to the Washington area as a child. His father worked for the U.S. Agriculture Department and later sold cars. His mother was a skilled artist.
As a student at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., Mr. Bausch wrote a novel about the Civil War that was never published. In 1965, he and his twin enlisted in the Air Force and served together for four years, teaching survival tactics.
Once, while the brothers were stationed in Illinois, they staged a mock fistfight, complete with slapping sound effects. It was so convincing that they were arrested and thrown in jail.
After their discharge, they attended Northern Virginia Community College before transferring to George Mason University, where both brothers won top writing awards. Robert Bausch graduated in 1974, stayed on at GMU for a master’s degree in English in 1975 and an MFA in creative writing in 2001.
In his youth, Mr. Bausch worked in a laundromat, as a cabdriver and as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He sometimes made extra money playing billiards in pool halls.
He taught at a private school before becoming an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College. He had periodic teaching stints at other colleges, including George Mason, Johns Hopkins University, American University and the University of Virginia.
His first marriage, to Geri Marrese, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 36 years, the former Denise “Denny” Natt of Stafford; a daughter from a relationship before his first marriage, Suzanne Bushee of Fredericksburg; two daughters from his first marriage, Sara Bausch of Durham, N.C., and Jules Bausch of Atlanta; a son from his second marriage, David Bausch of Los Angeles; three brothers, Richard Bausch of Orange, Calif., Steve Bausch and Tim Bausch, both of Tall Timbers, Md.; a sister, Betty Franzen of Berryville, Va.; and three grandchildren.
At Northern Virginia Community College, Mr. Bausch often taught six literature and writing courses a semester. He received a statewide award in 2013 as one of Virginia’s leading college professors. In 2009, he received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature from Longwood University in Farmville, Va., for his body of work.
Mr. Bausch’s students learned he had an endless supply of jokes and that his teaching methods could be a bit unorthodox. During a temporary assignment at American University, he taught a freshman honors class in which each student was required to deliver an oral report.
When one student failed to show up to give his report, his roommate explained, “He’s not feeling too well.”
“Is that a fact?” Mr. Bausch replied, according to another AU faculty member who spoke to The Post in 2002.
Mr. Bausch then took the entire class on a field trip across campus to the absent student’s dormitory room. Mr. Bausch pounded on the door until the groggy student appeared, clad only in a towel. He promptly got dressed and rejoined the class.
After that, Mr. Bausch’s colleague said, “Bob had no further trouble with absentees.”