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BOOK REVIEW / SHORT STORIES : Revealing Insights From Overwhelming Personal Crises : RARE & ENDANGERED SPECIES,A Novella and Stories by Richard Bausch ; Houghton Mifflin $22.95, 257 pages

August 30, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "The Person I Have Mostly Become," the narrator's family decides to celebrate--beer in champagne glasses--when they learn he may at last have the chance to land a significant remodeling job. It could mean $5,000 net, probably more, and that's a large sum considering that the narrator (who never gives his name) has been out of work for a long time--and that his mother, through housecleaning, has been contributing more to the family income than he has.

Ruth, who moved in "temporarily" with her son's family after being unable to make the payments on her own home, is responsible for the current good news as well; the remodeling is to be done at an old Victorian owned by Mrs. Wilton, one of her regular clients, and Ruth has been busy talking up her son's abilities.

The narrator knows a lot is riding on the meeting with Mrs. Wilton the following day--his self-respect, mostly, which has been damaged not only through unemployment but because his wife continues to hold a good, congenial job, and because he has begun to bully his son needlessly.

But the interview doesn't go well: The narrator is put off balance at discovering that Mrs. Wilton is young, only in her mid-30s, and becomes flustered, humiliated, and angry when Ruth excuses herself on the pretext of having to run the rug-sweeper.

"Baby, you watch those big heavy shoes on my fresh-waxed floor," Ruth tells her son--and as soon as those words are out of her mouth all he can think is that his mother used to have a cleaning lady, that things didn't used to be this way, that Ruth had "been led to believe by everybody and everything that she would never have to work outside the house if she didn't want to."

He can't say all that to Mrs. Wilton, however, who obviously regards Ruth as no more than an employee, and the narrator feels viscerally and intensely the family's downward spiral. The realization paralyzes him, with the result that he botches the interview, ensuring that the descent will continue unabated.

"The Person I Have Mostly Become" is one of numerous fine stories in this third collection by Richard Bausch, and it will surely solidify his position as one of the best short-story writers working today.

Like the one just mentioned, these stories often concern men attempting, and failing, to show grace under pressure; life simply proves too much for these characters, overpowering them with sliders and knuckleballs, pitches they never expected to see. There's a good reason that Wil1819880480ne he loves.

The tour de force story in "Rare & Endangered Species"--"Aren't You Happy for Me?"--approaches the same general theme in a very different, wonderfully effective way. It begins innocuously enough, almost predictably, with Melanie Ballinger informing her father by telephone that she has become engaged. The father is taken aback by the announcement--Melanie hadn't mentioned having a boyfriend--and soon teases out the fact that his daughter is pregnant.

The bombshell, though, has yet to be dropped: that occurs when Melanie reveals that her fiance is 40 years older than she is and 19 years older than the intended's father-in-law-to-be. The dialogue in this scene is word-perfect, the stunned father registering every emotion from disbelief and anger to resignation and resentment, unable to do justice to the idea nor understand how the relationship could have come about ("What, was there a senior citizen-student mixer at the college?"). Melanie sounds exactly as you'd expect: "I'm an adult," she says, and adds all-knowingly when her father shows no signs of blessing the union, "I should've bet money."

Bausch builds his stories around personal crises, and as with most first-rate writing, they are more likely to be precipitated by revealing insights--as perceived by Bausch's readers, if not by his characters--than by external events.

In the novella "Rare & Endangered Species," a family deals with questions and relationships brought to the fore by the suicide of a grandmother; in "Tandolfo the Great," a semiprofessional magician dreams of turning his fantasy love life into reality in the same way he pulls rabbits out of hats; in "High-Heeled Shoe," a man named Dornberg feels oppressed by the weight of a recently terminated affair, a need to believe his wife already knows all.

Dornberg is a characteristic Bausch protagonist, slightly nervous, a little oversensitive and easy prey for melancholy. When he hears the sound of a late-night party issuing from a nearby construction site--the same place he found the high-heeled shoe through which he unconsciously attempts to confess his affair--Dornberg becomes depressed.

"Dornberg had heard the music, the voices, the laughter of the women," Bausch writes. It was "as though this jazzy, uncomplicated gaiety--the kind that had no cost and generated no guilt--had chosen these others over him."

Such is man's lot, in Bausch's achingly realistic world--to yearn for what one cannot have, to value most those things that have already slipped away, and always to feel acutely the sting of regret.

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