Temptation, sin, tragedy, farce and redemption

Review Novel

December 03, 2006|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

Thanksgiving Night

By Richard Bausch

HarperCollins / 403 pages / $24.95

Father John Fire, pastor of St. Augustine's church, tries to talk Mr. Petit out of killing himself. Petit, the high school vice principal, points the gun at the 72-year-old Roman Catholic priest, who is his confessor, and tells him to leave his office. "I -- I haven't heard your confession," the priest says.

"Forgive me, Father, I'm intolerably alone. ..."

"You will give me that gun and walk out of here with me."

"Petit stares at him ... and seems to be considering. Then he raises the gun to his middle. ..." This is just one of many nail-biting moments in Richard Bausch's 10th novel, Thanksgiving Night, a busy, multi-plotted tale involving an array of distraught characters. Besides Fire, his assistant, Father McFadden, and Mr. Petit, there are Oliver Ward and his daughter, Allison; Allison's 14-year-old son, Jonathan; Will Butterfield and his second wife, Elizabeth; Will's mother, Holly Grey, and her Aunt Fiona -- both 80-some years old; Will's grown children, Gail and Mark. Everyone feels on the edge in this suspenseful, violent, oddly farcical but tragic tale.

In one dizzying chapter, for example, Holly calls the police reporting that Fiona has taken their car and disappeared. Soon the elderly Fiona is found drunk in Macbeth's bar buying drinks for two young men, and Will is called to retrieve his great-aunt.

But with a drinking problem himself, Will also gets drunk, and things turn from the farcical to the tragic as the happily married Will is attracted to Ariana, the sexy but crazy barmaid. Their affair becomes one of the story's dramatic high points: Will wrestles with temptation and succumbs while his wife, Elizabeth, seesaws between wanting to forgive him and being unable to do so. The climax occurs as Will stands on the train tracks at night -- racked by guilt.

In Thanksgiving Night, Bausch, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for his short stories, returns to his Catholic roots (as seen in his first novel, Real Presence) with another unabashedly Roman Catholic story, which has catholic -- universal -- themes. Not only do both novels have priests as protagonists, they also have spiritual ennui and enlightenment as part of the conflict. Whether churchgoing or not, the characters have problems with the conditions of their souls -- a word Bausch uses frequently. They experience crises of faith in God, in each other, and in their own selves.

Fire says people are contradictory, as was Christ: "the contradiction of being both God and man, and alive on the earth; of possessing an eternal soul yet living in a body that dies. It is all meaning." The observation, occurring early on, signals the story's strong Christian overtones. It also foreshadows the characters' contradictory natures -- borne out when these genuinely good people do bad things.

The novel revels in word play from the characters' names to the title, partly italicized as in Thanksgiving; to iconic statements. " `Christ,' Butterfield says, meaning it in all the ways it can be meant." There are several allusions to the poetry of the 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and to writings by the 13th-century doctor of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas, especially his Summa Theologica. Fire enjoys both authors, as does McFadden, a wannabe poet, who adds comic relief by insisting on reading his very bad poetry while asking for "positive" feedback.

Eccentric, prickly, stubborn and petty, Holly and Aunt Fiona add comic relief and tension arguing about minutiae. When their arguments erupt, however, they cause real problems for themselves and everyone around -- especially Oliver Ward, the handyman redesigning their home, and his daughter Allison, a policewoman called in to referee the two octogenarians.

Living in Point Royal, Va., a small town resembling Front Royal, the characters not only all know one another; they redeem one another. Fire, who's thinking about leaving the priesthood, plays a pivotal role in that redemption -- despite the best and the worst intentions of people like Mr. Petit with his homoerotic feelings toward adolescent boys like Jonathan.

Blending tragedy, comedy, farce and melodrama, the convoluted plot is set from Labor Day to Thanksgiving night in 1999. The events occur on the edge of a new millennium, a time that Bausch skillfully evokes, making it a kind of albatross on the characters' psyches.

Besides drinking too much, smoking pot, committing adultery and feeling guilty and depressed, the characters worry about Y2K, impeachment proceedings, violence in the schools, lesbian love and wasteful materialism. Bausch uses these issues like ingredients in soup simmering on a back burner until he turns up the heat. As he does, the characters -- driven to the brink of despair -- find something akin to hope.

Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a teacher at Towson University.

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