The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:
By Richard Bausch
Knopf, 171 pp., $19.95
If war didn’t exist, novelists would have to invent it. What other pursuit reduces humanity to a raw essence and brings into question the nature of civilization?
Richard Bausch’s Peace is a very short novel. Some would call it a novella, but that diminutive doesn’t do the book justice. For with a kind of magical economy, Bausch packs more into 171 pages than some novelists do with three times that number. He has written 10 previous novels, and he has learned how to propel a story, to lay traps for the reader, to entice one into turning the page. In his latest novel, he not only tells a story, but he also gives his characters back-stories, illumines their inner lives, and even finds room for a couple of subplots. But the book owes equally as much to his work in short fiction – he has seven volumes of stories. He knows the importance of placing the right word, the right image, in the right place.
The main plot is a familiar one: a patrol goes out on reconnaissance; some of them kill, and some of them are killed. The three principal characters are straight out of the melting-pot cast of a Hollywood World War II movie: a Catholic, a Jew, and a foul-mouthed bigot from the
It is the winter of 1944.
It is a miserable climb. Freezing rain turns to snow as they go higher. Marson, the novel’s central character, suffers the agony of a blistered foot. Asch and Joyner bicker constantly. And when they find where the Germans are – or have been – a sniper attacks.
Has the old man led them into a trap? For the enigmatic Italian, who understands – or claims to understand – only a few words of English, was once their enemy, as Joyner keeps reminding them. “Non sono fascista,” the old man insists, every time Joyner utters the word “Fascist.” But from the moment we first see him driving his cart along the road, the man evokes the traditional image of Death: “A crooked shape in brown, a hooded man with dark thin hands, held the reins. Under the hood was only the suggestion of a gaunt face in shadow.”
Thus Bausch gives us a story with the resonance of a fable, but permeated with psychological realism. Here is Marson, alone, undertaking a crucial mission: “Not quite gradually, but with a slow widening of himself, he felt a lessening of tension, as if something had been released in his blood, a drug, preventing him from feeling what he had felt only seconds before.” And after he has completed his mission, “He had the sense, again without words, that life – all life, the life he had led and the life he had come to – had never been so suffused with clarity, a terrible inhuman clarity, made utterly out of precision, like the precision of gear and tackle in a machine. Except that he understood, in a sick wave, that this was utterly and only human.”
For that is Bausch’s point: War is human. And recognizing the moral implications of that fact can be shattering.