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Spirits and Other Stories by Richard Bausch (Linden: $15.95; 237 pp.)

July 12, 1987|Sharon Dirlam | Dirlam is a Times staff writer

"Spirits" is called a collection of short stories, but it is more a collection of characters captured and considered at the moment fate twists their lives around.

The nine stories follow no discernible rules of plot or narrative; some have little sense of a beginning or satisfying denouement. The writer seems simply to arrive at the place where these people exist, to perceive them, and to give a penetrating account of their situations. Each one seems completely real.

The tensions of the characters are those of bewilderment and often their inability to cope with what life throws at them. Their motivations, one and all, are braided of that common thread of life: to do well, to be happy or at least contented, to survive.

There is the grandfather in "What Feels Like the World" who mourns quietly because he is the only one to care for his awkward and unhappy granddaughter, and he doesn't know how to be what she needs. He watches from the bedroom window as she tries and fails, tries and fails, to turn a proper summersault, as required of all the fifth-grade children for a special program to be attended by the parents.

He notes with sadness that the child has inherited his physical traits, a large and floppy body that will not perform as required no matter how she diets or sweats or wills herself to succeed. If he tells her that it doesn't matter, she knows that he thinks she will fail. Whether she fails is left untold.

Other things matter more--the fact that she has never cried about her mother's death or her father's absence, and further, that her grandfather "has regions of his own sorrow that he simply lacks the strength to explore, and so he sits there watching her restlessness." Little of fiction bears a sadder testimony to the distance between people. This story was an O. Henry prize-winner.

The first story in the collection begins with a postscript. A man is sitting in a churchyard in Arizona, remembering a picnic with his wife and five children, a fifth of Jim Beam hidden in the trunk of the car, a series of promises, all unkept. We never know how the man, Walter, got to Arizona, except that the time is after the end of life as he knew it.

An earlier memory, from childhood, haunts him as well, when his father "became a sort of dark gibbet that Walter danced beneath, held by the wrist within the small circumference, the range, of a singing swung belt." In the churchyard, Walter continues to wrestle with his demons. Everything has changed, but nothing is resolved.

"Police Dreams" opens with a postscript as well: "About a month before Jean left him, Casey dreamed. . . ." Then the narrative seeps into Casey's consciousness and subconsciousness while at the same time describing events around him that Casey doesn't understand. His wife's departure takes him by surprise; all he knows is that "something changed for her," but he hadn't suspected even that until she is gone.

When she forces him to confront the fact that she won't be back, "he can't say anything. He's left with the weight of himself, standing there before her." A few words, so heavily laden.

In "Wise Men at Their End," Theodore, the 83-year-old protagonist, has to contend with a rather obnoxious daughter-in-law who has decided Theodore needs her attention.

"It was like having another wife, he told her, and she took this as praise. She never seemed to hear things as they were meant, and it was clear that in her mind, she was being quite wonderful--cheerful and sweet and witty in the face of his irascibility and pigheadedness." She tells him he drinks too much and that he shouldn't live alone at his age.

The daughter-in-law tries to match up Theodore with an old woman, and her interference leads to disaster. To please him, the old woman agrees to have a touch of whiskey along with Theodore. He heads for the cellar to get it, and "his leg snapped as he struck bottom. It sounded like an old stick."

Theodore thinks this will be the death of him, and indeed death does haunt him with its certain chill, but he doesn't die. He only becomes even less independent. And now there is the old woman in the picture. And there is the fact of his need.

In quite a different voice, Bausch describes a little girl's disappointment when her pretty sister, Laura, 10 years older, decides to marry instead of pursuing their shared fantasy of a career in show business. This lacks the strength of the other stories but shows off the author's versatility.

If there is a message in Bausch's collection, maybe it's that things don't quite work out as they might; life is sadder and more complicated than it ought to be, and yet the struggle continues and is somehow worth it. Bausch combines a poet's sense of rhythm with a philosopher's quest for truth, but he is first of all a most original storyteller.

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