Bausch's newest novel: bitter elegance

September 22, 1996|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America, and All the Ships at Sea," by Richard Bausch. HarperCollins. 402 pages. $24.

Richard Bausch's new novel, starts off as a charming coming-of-age tale, a breezy period piece, but slowly and confidently it morphs into a flinty, dream-slaying chiller. The impeccably graceful, nearly translucent prose introduces you to a young idealist, Walter Marshall of Washington circa 1964, and invites you to watch the progress of his - and by proxy the country's - disillusionment.

Marshall is 19, a student at a suspect little broadcasting school run by the glamorous, doomed D'Allessandros. A natural at reading for the radio, he's pegged by his classmates as a success in the making. It doesn't hurt that his fiancee, Alice, is the daughter of a big-shot D.C. news producer. She's sexy, rich, ebullient, well-meaning and connected, but Marshall isn't sure he wants to marry her or pursue a career in her father's field. Maybe he wants to go into politics; maybe he wants to marry a mysterious German girl. The author pokes gentle fun at him in the early page, but saddles him with a dreary mother who's tumbling toward alcoholism and a lame marriage to her blowhard boss.

She's not as big a mess as some of the other students in Marshall's broadcasting class. These are the sort of quirky, quiet souls who regularly come to wondrous life in Anne Tyler's fictional world, but Bausch has a different, colder eye. For example, his blind girl, Emma, a minor recurring character, is engagingly neurotic and foolish until you discover that she's a bitter, hostile racist. You comprehend the complex prism of her character with profound sadness.

In fact, the overwhelming tone of this book, for all of its formal literary pleasures, is despairing. Its Washington. is a picture-pretty small town where all of your friends are corrupt. Its throwaway characters - the German girl, the diminutive, bluff gangster - are vividly delightful, but they don't get as much page time as the wishy-washy Marshall and his mother. There's a set-piece civil rights demonstration at the heart of the novel that thrills you with its tense, tightly orchestrated effects; you can feel the fear notch up the characters' spines. But the scene is masterfully, regrettably undercut, deflated, by Marshall's weak-willed interpretation of the event.

Bausch, it seems, is at heart a brooder. Toward the end of the book he lets Mitch Brightman, a cynical celebrity newsman, break young Marshall's heart once and for all. Brightman trashes the recently murdered President Kennedy, and goes on to say: "Look, kid. It's all a show.... During the war - men's dying all around us, you know? High drama. But showbiz ... Kennedy - that new frontier crap. A show. Hell, they put that flag up at Iwo six or seven times so the guy could get a good film of it. For the folks back home."

The book shambles elegantly to its bitter ending: romances broken, dreams deferred, loose web of friends torn up by a whirl of brave and cowardly decisions. Emblematic Walter Marshall, caught up in the frenzy of the times, makes a terrible, rash decision. You wince, but Bausch makes you believe.

Ben Neihart published his first novel, "Hey, Joe," this year, after completing a masters program in writing at Johns Hopkins and in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He contributes to literary magazines, including the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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