“The Fireman’s Wife”, a short story by Richard Bausch, is, to my mind, one of the best short stories written in English. It’s up there for me along with Joyce’s “The Dead”, Mansfield’s “At the Bay” Carver’s “Blackbird Pie” and all the stories I value that, in a few pages, have brought a whole world, a life, people and their ways, right into the centre of consciousness without any need of props and incident and high drama.
Short stories are what I know of Bausch – fine, fine short stories that are frail and uncertain and meaningful as life itself. For a long time, they were hard to find in the UK and you could only read them in American editions, but recently he has had more attention here, and especially since the publication of “Peace”, his novel about American soliders in Italy in the second world war that has all the hesitancy, the grace of his short fiction.
What has happened, then, in this new novel, Before, During, After? Despite that lovely glancing title, it comes freighted from the outset with a theme that is neither tentative nor distinctive, those two seemingly opposing qualities that together make up the best works of art. For alas, this is a “9/11” novel – “Natasha is on a trip to Jamaica and Michael is in New York when the World Trade Centre is attacked” is written right there on the back jacket – and what a shame that that date and its events must slice into this otherwise interesting account of a young woman who is raped and decides not to tell her future husband about it. For that is the real story here, a Richard Bausch kind of story, full of subtlety and the sort of terrible details that create trauma and distress in the minute-to-minute experiencing of them. His account of the rape itself, for example, is hideously, marvellously done:
“One kiss?” She let him, opened her mouth with the tactile pleasure of it… She had a sensation of sudden clarity: this was actually happening. It was as thought what had begun to unfold had just now become visible to her. She pushed on his shoulders as he got on top of her… His weight was stopping her breath.
Such is the force of this writer’s ability. The twin towers and the planes and the chaos… he doesn’t need all that.
Yet there it is, and how it changes things – opening the door in this novel to endless concrete detail and newsy, factual reportage of the day and its affect: “She had missed the news about the fourth plane – the one in Pennsylvania –and she saw the reporting about that, and when the TV showed the flames and smoke still erupting out of the side of the Pentagon….” “etc etc. Not to say this isn’t the sort of stuff to be made light of, of course, and for certain novelists, who have nothing more to say than recast the news, it’s bread and butter.
Followers of 9/11 fiction and its like will say that big subjects create big themes, big characters… they make big novels. They are right, in the sense that people seem to have a hard time finding writing important unless it speaks straight to contemporary issues and concerns. One can only think, then, that Bausch had that in mind when he created Before, During, After, inserting this kind of material into his literary project to gain attention, to make his work seem, to readers who would otherwise miss him, more worldly, contemporary, vivid somehow.
Maybe this highly thoughtful and precise writer grew tired of making quiet stories and wanted to make a fuss, now, while there still time? Better, he thought perhaps, that one might read this novel and then go on to “The Fireman’s Wife”, than never to have read him at all?