310 pages. $22.95.
"The day after Christmas, they set out for Chicago to visit his mother."
It's such an ordinary opening line for a book with such an ominous title: "Violence." But everyday life is the key to masterful storyteller Richard Bausch's latest novel.
The story is as ordinary as a young couple's pilgrimage home to see an aging mother when the couple really can't afford the trip: Charles Connally is unemployed and his wife, Carol, has just learned she's pregnant. They argue about money and, for a while, can't see hope in their future. As Charles often does, he leaves their room one night in frustration, hoping to calm himself with a stroll.
The story is as common as a late-night armed robbery at a convenience store. Charles witnesses it accidentally. One moment, he's reading labels on aspirin bottles in the shop, and the next he turns to find a tall robber pointing a shotgun at him.
Soon, the gunman and his partner begin firing.
Charles survives that night of violence, but in the more than 200 pages that follow, we wonder whether that cataclysmic event will, indeed, become the end of the world for him and Carol.
No, there isn't any great mystery to be solved about the crime; there are no lingering bad guys to suspensefully menace Charles' family. Mr. Bausch's tale is fascinating precisely
because he avoided any temptation to fill up the rest of his pages with the creeping shadows, flying bullets and screeching tires of typical suspense novels.
Mr. Bausch makes it clear that he thinks Americans' fascination with good guys, bad guys and cartoon-style violence has become a disease. He writes:
"The whole country loved murder, and entertained such avid curiosity about it -- all the books, the mystery stories and the movies and the television programs. You could make a body count any night of the week, and none of it was like the real thing -- the sheer inanimate weight of the dead, the lightless stare, and blood."
Charles is stunned by the reality of the crimes at the party store, and Carol, who missed the crime completely, is almost unable to deal with its impact on her husband. Instead of facing more crooks, the young couple face deep family secrets churned up by Charles' experience.
This daring novel never would have worked if Mr. Bausch had not so completely understood the confusion, fragility and even the nobility of these young lives. This is his seventh book in 13 years, and that long experience with the craft of narration has given him a perfect sense of honesty in selecting his characters' words and gestures.
Charles and Carol come alive through an accumulation of such deftly sketched, small moments. Some of them are no longer than a sentence, and the most memorable ones mark those breathtaking little epiphanies in life when one discovers brief moments of rest, security, forgiveness or love.
For instance, after one angry, late-night argument, Charles stomps away from Carol in a quiet rage, trying to sort out his feelings. At first he simply wants to escape, and then:
"I love my wife, he thought, as if he were invoking a name in prayer, and then he was thinking how it was true: He did love her, and in the moment of realizing this, he was sorry about everything, vaguely angry with himself."
Only in a few instances does Mr. Bausch step into the novel to nudge readers with explicit lessons. One comes in a haunting preface to the novel, a passage by poet Theodore Roethke:
ZTC What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstances? . . .
6* A man goes far to find out what he is.