YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Where This Buck Stops : REBEL POWERS, By Richard Bausch (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence: $21.95; 400 pp.)

April 25, 1993|Douglas Glover | Glover's most recent novel, "The Life and Times of Captain N." (Alfred A. Knopf), is just published

Part country-and-Western lament, part post-Vietnam War pulse-taking and part pure Americana, Richard Bausch's novel "Rebel Powers" is a poignant examination of the state of middle America in the late 20th Century. Bausch reads like Raymond Carver or Andre Dubus with a long breath--he is no minimalist, though he shares a literary territory staked out by the minimalists: American people for whom the American Dream has come to a shuddering stop, people in doubt and alienated from their own best hopes, ordinary people, decent (if flawed) people, modern-day heroes.

The plot of "Rebel Powers" revolves around the dissolution of the marriage between Daniel and Connie Boudreaux as observed and recorded by their 17-year-old son Thomas. The year is 1967, and Daniel Boudreaux, a Purple Heart Vietnam vet, has just been drummed out of the Air Force and sentenced to two years in prison for writing bad checks. The Air Force evicts Connie, Thomas and Thomas's younger sister, Lisa, from the base officers' quarters in Maryland where they have made their home, and the family begins a cross-country trek to a seedy boarding house in Wilson Creek, Wyo., a mile from Daniel's penitentiary.

Along the way, they are thrust together with a pretty one-eyed girl named Penny Holt and her prospective brother-in-law Chummy Terpin who are, coincidentally, on their way to visit Penny's fiance, Buddy, imprisoned in Kansas for draft evasion. Connie is tactfully vague about Daniel's crime, giving the impression that Daniel, too, is an anti-war protester, a misunderstanding which allows Bausch to pen scenes of exquisite irony as the plot wears on.

Penny follows the Boudreaux family to Wilson Creek and takes a room in the same boarding house. She and Connie become fast friends if not something more. They are never lovers, but Penny's attachment is desperate and obsessive. She is one of those waifish souls whose desires for a relationship always seem to outstrip what is decently possible.

Penny is what movie people call "the pressure." When Daniel is released from prison a few months later, her presence exacerbates what is already a tense situation between husband and wife. The night Sirhan Sirhan shoots Robert Kennedy in a California hotel kitchen, the Boudreaux family explodes in an orgy of challenge and recrimination.

The story of Daniel and Connie goes on, but their marriage has suffered a sea change, something has been irrevocably lost, a sense of hope and innocence. And this is where Bausch deepens his book--because what the Boudreaux family has lost parallels what, through the Vietnam War, has been lost by the nation. Daniel, talking to Thomas in a bitter moment of self-reflection, makes the connection explicit when he admits that Penny is not what has come between him and Connie. "I lost it in Vietnam. . . . Was never quite the same . . . never the same after that . . . I had a lot of trouble going to sleep in the nights. I had awful dreams . . . the whole thing started from there."

Thus the Boudreaux family stands for an America stricken and spiritually wounded by a war no one wanted. Penny and Connie and Daniel are people somehow cut off from normal human relations by a sense of movement, of change--a bitter wind they do not understand. Daniel cannot fathom a world that lands him first in a Viet Cong POW camp and then a Wyoming prison. Penny says only, "I just--I don't want anything to change. I never want anything to change anymore. I've had enough changes." They are ordinary people desperately and vainly seeking stability.

All this is explored in deceptively casual style, which seems at first haphazard but soon reveals itself as part of a deft construction of interlocking plot lines, repeated incidents and cross-references--for example, Daniel's prison-to-prison pattern, Penny's habit of falling too quickly in love and pulling back, and Thomas's subsequent repetition of his own family history when he joins the Air Force and later divorces his wife.

Bausch is particularly good at creating that sense of accelerating suspense, with the quick climactic explosion at the end as theme and plot drive toward a single culminating scene, which is one of the beauties of the novel. It is possible that he even deliberately slows the opening sequences (the long train ride, the first coincidental meeting with Penny and Chummy) in order to accentuate the sense of speed at the novel's close. This is daring and masterful and shows Bausch at his best as a sublime orchestrator of his material.

For the rest, a sense of the loss, of nostalgia and impotence, of being trapped in a world one did not make, pervades Bausch's novel. It is a sad and sagacious book, which reminds us that the Vietnam War bequeathed this country a generation of walking wounded, men, women and children whose lives were forever warped by the experience of being thrust, all unknowing, into America's own heart of darkness.

Los Angeles Times Articles