The Fireman's Wife and Other Stories. Richard Bausch. Linden Press/Simon & Schuster. 219 pages. $18.95. In an age that fusses over the "right" labels -- labels that separate and restrict, such as liberal vs. conservative, minimalist vs. romantic, etc. -- Richard Bausch is refreshingly beyond labels. This is because Mr. Bausch is first and foremost a storyteller. He is a writer with the mission to communicate slices of life, varied perspectives, and the possibilities instead of the answers. He is not afraid to be inside the mind of a disillusioned rough cowboy in one story and then take on the sensibilities of a young fireman's wife in another.
In his latest volume of short stories, Mr. Bausch offers a rich treasury of life as it was and is, in light of life as it could (not necessarily should) be. Mr. Bausch, twice nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction, is neither didactic or pedantic. Yet, his readers can't leave a story without the diffusing warmth that enters one's being upon experiencing an encounter with someone who genuinely cares about the ideas he is imparting. His power to move us is that much greater because his voice is comfortable with itself, rather than urgent or self-conscious. Mr. Bausch's voice is removed just enough from those of his characters to make the story, instead of the character, the focus.
Mr. Bausch is not concerned with impressing us by creating original or super characters, whose motivations and goals become so complicated and "worked on" that they no longer are believable. He is concerned with capturing our interest
calmly but securely through a different twist on life's complications within a setting we aren't as familiar with (at least in fiction). We care less about what will happen to a certain character and more about how it will happen, and then what?
Short stories bound in the same volume usually are unified through a common tone, voice or theme. Because Mr. Bausch does not restrict himself to a single voice, whether of age, gender, socio-economic or educational background, this volume offers several viewpoints. But the stories do share a spiritual tone, "spiritual" not referring strictly to religious sensibilities but rather to one's essence -- both the reality of one's conscious, pragmatic self and the potential of one's less tangible, more mysterious and wild self. Mr. Bausch doesn't judge or pity these darker sides; he explores them for what they are to that character during that particular episode of life.
The stories also share a theme, although the different voices allow this theme different perspectives. In this collection, Mr. Bausch examines how love (or a tangent of love, such as admiration or family relationships) affects a person's instincts in the midst of crisis. In "Old West," a middle-aged
cowboy builds his life around his mistaken childhood memory of how a whippersnapper shooter heroically defended his town. The shooter returns, gone to seed mentally, emotionally and physically. Another showdown takes place, revealing what really happened a long time ago, and how the first showdown changed the boy's family life.
In the tantalizing story "Design," Father Russell becomes irritated by Reverend Tarmigian's seeming neglect of his health. How the priest's self-absorption evolves into genuine caring for the reverend's well-being is startling, humorous and meaningful. In "The Fireman's Wife" and its sequel, "Consolation," the crises are the disintegration of a marriage and the death of a husband. In both, Mr. Bausch is aware of how often it is only the passing of time that gets us from one moment to the next. Sometimes we are bereft of vision, motivation, dreams or the power to change what we hate.
Other stories reflect on how crises between self and others are heightened by aging parents, aging spouses and coping with leftover uncertainties and pains from our own youth while learning the complications of interacting with spouses and children.
Richard Bausch is a master storyteller. We believe him because we believe his stories.
Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.