SOMETHING IS OUT THERE by Richard Bausch
“She watched the white expanse, through the fantastic churning, the eddies of wind made visible by the solidness of swarming flakes. Nothing had moved out there. But it was coming; she sensed it. Whatever it was. It was near.”
Review by Bonnie Brody (FEB 10, 2010)
Richard Bausch has written a stunning collection of eleven short stories, all strong and memorable. The stories tackle the themes of the frailty of love and relationships, fears, losses, betrayals. His characters often want to leave the present for something new and unknown. “I wish it was tomorrow” is a quote from one of the stories but is applicable to most of them. During the course of his stories, the characters become different people than they were initially. Often, they have reached a point of no return when the story begins or find themselves at this point when the story ends. There are omens of things bad and frightening waiting in the ordinariness of daily life. There are also omens of momentous positive changes to come. People often look like they carry the weight of the world in their faces. The weather plays a part in most of his stories as it reflects the characters’ inner lives or needs.
“The Harp Department of Love“ is the opening story. Josephine is a young wife thirty years her husband’s junior. Perhaps through her lackadaisical attitude or her desire for admiration, she allows a friendship with a young man go a bit too far. He becomes obsessed with her and confronts her husband, telling him that Josephine loves him. Her husband moves out and in his world of pain he realizes that he is becoming old and can’t compete with youth. When her husband comes over to visit her, Josephine thinks, “He seems old. For the first time in her life with him, she sees his age as a separate thing, a fact about him, like something that might be explained to her.” Â She looks inside herself and sees the good. “And she’s innocent of any wrongdoing, too – guilty of nothing but the need to be admired.” The story speaks to her husband’s age and his fears of aging. She is “traveling,” on a personal journey, the kind of experience that can only come with youth.
In “Reverend Thornbill’s Wife“, a reverend’s wife has a one-time sexual liaison with a man she met on an internet site for “people mutually looking for extramarital excitement without commitment.” For one day, ordinary life becomes filled with passion and mystery. “Except that there was also a kind of macabre sense that she had opened a little crevice in a fortification on the other side of which something awful awaited – there did seem to be an element of morbidness about all this.” When her husband comes home, she looks at him differently and sees him as more limited and sexually repressed. This is her future.
“Son and Heir“ is about a boy who grows up in a home with a lot of hypocrisy. To the outside world, his parents appear happy. However, they are miserable with each other and often go for weeks without talking. They even have the boy pass notes between them. As the boy matures, he is a disappointment to his parents. He drifts through life “in defiance of their expectations – his parents’ ambitions for him – and of the falsity he had grown up with.” When he turns 27 years old, his father gives him $500 and stops supporting him. He is told to come home when he is a man, not still a boy. A traumatic event occurs and the young man, who has not had anything to do with his parents for a few years, returns home while they are out of town. He goes to his bedroom and hides underneath his bed, both a scared little boy and a man who realizes that he is lost.
In “Trophy“, we meet Jimmy. JImmy owns a car dealership and is facing a round of bad luck. This isn’t much different from the rest of his life as he’s experiened sorrows, losses and defeats. The people who work for him view him as a mentor. One of them stages a situation on a golf course that makes Jimmy think he’s attained something he hasn’t. This leads him to believe he’s in for a round of good luck. He does find success but he still carries the weight of the world in his face.
In “Something is Out There,” a woman begins an ordinary day “wholeheartedly believing in goodwill, contracts, commitments, friendship, helpfulness.” During the day, her husband is shot by an irate ex-business partner. Later on, she and her sons are caught up in a snowstorm and all the power goes off in their house. She begins to think that her husband, who she is intending to leave, may be involved in some sort of crime. She senses something frightening and scary in the air. “She stood for a moment in the chilly doom of the basement and had the thought that this day’s badness was the beginning of something more, and unfolding. She didn’t even know what it would be about; she wasn’t even sure it was coming. But her blood told her it was, and she had to be ready for it, whatever it might be.”
In “Overcast“, a young woman, recently divorced and rather aimless, sees her life as overcast. She attempts to keep up a positive attitude and a good front. In reality, she’s stuck in her past as she ponders her future, floundering in the present. One day a man comes into the diner where she is a waitress. “She saw him, and abruptly had an unbidden strong sense that this morning would be important, that something momentous would take place.” The man drops a leaflet with some enigmatic writing on it and she can’t get it out of her mind. She finds herself wanting this man to reappear in her life again. He and the leaflet represent “where she might go, who she might come to be with, what she might find to an do or be, and whether or not she would be happy there, so far away, in the magical distance, the future, that was taking so long to arrive.”
My favorite story in the collection is “One Hour in the History of Love.” Â At different tables in a restaurant sit separate couples, each dealing with the nuances of love and their own relationships – disappointments, joys, expectations, angers. Across the street, an elderly couple grapples with their disappointments about their grown children. Bausch segues beautifully between the different couples and conversations. He examines the universal elements of intimacy by having the strangers’ conversations briefly intersect for the reader.
In “Sixty-five Million Years,” Hennessey is a priest who is in the midst of a spiritual burn-out. He finds that “his hours in the booth were an almost unbearable ordeal now.” “He felt nothing.” He has trouble sleeping. He gives himself extra penance to make up for his spiritual failings. “The cares of his week were not unusual, yet they drained him.” One day, a 15 year-old boy with rheumatoid arthritis comes to confession. He is precocious and filled with doubt. He asks Father Hennessey about the 65 million years when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and why did God let that happen. All Father Hennessey can tell the boy is to have faith. The boy returns and Father Hennessey desperately tries to connect with him. There is something about this boy that affects him in a way that nothing has for a long time. However, Father Hennessey feels like he has failed the boy. All he can do is tell him to have faith. The boy returns and says “I’m worried about all the places in the universe where there’s nothing going on, and nothing but silence”. The boy talks about the faulty nature of God and of God being just like people. As much as Father Hennessey tries to communicate the importance of faith and combat the boy’s doubts, he feels like he just can’t reach this young man. Father Hennessey becomes obsessed with him, wanting to know who he is, where he lives, what his life’s like. Where once he dreaded the boredom of confessional, he now yearns for it, hoping the boy will return. Father Hennessey feels like “something is intolerably wrong” with his life despite the orderliness of it. He wonders if this boy is “angel who has been sent to goad him out of his apathy.” Speaking to this boy gives him “a sense of having come face-to-face with a living sanctity..
There is a brooding darkness in all the stories, a sense of something about to go wrong or something bad waiting just around the corner. People are betrayed, their impulses lead them to do things outside their range of self-perception, they become obsessed. Intimacy is fragile, easily broken and difficult to repair. No one ends up happy. There is no such outcome in a Richard Bausch short story. The reader ends up feeling enriched, privy to the private lives of complex and rich individuals, and to the dark side of the soul that is not easily described. Richard Bausch is a master craftsman and a wonderful story teller.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 4 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (February 9, 2010)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||Something is Out There: Stories|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Richard Bausch|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More sunning short story collections:
The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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- Something Is Out There: Stories (February 2010)