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A short story master and his treasurehouse


Living in the Weather of the World

By Richard Bausch


242 pages   $25.95

By Michael D. Langan

If I had a choice, short stories would be my favorite reading.

And Richard Bausch, an American writer (1945 - ), who has won more plaudits than you could imagine - he’s a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, and scads of work in “The New Yorker”, “The Atlantic”, “Harper’s Magazine”, and other mags - is king of the genre in America.

Bausch is out with another fine collection of stories – surprising, diverting, and endearing - with a weird title, “Living in the Weather of the World.”

So, what qualities do you think of when you consider a good short story?

I like Western New York native and supreme artist, Joyce Carol Oates’ description of American short fiction. She contends in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, “If the novel, as Stendhal famously said, is a mirror moving along a roadway, a short story might be said to be a glimpse in a rear view mirror, small and intense in concentration, capturing what is fleeting, finite.”

That’s a good a definition of what Bausch does with these new pieces: He makes piercing miniaturizations. In his spare prose, Bausch leaves as much to the imagination as he puts in. He also abides by Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor’s dictum of occasionally having the end of a story come down like a kite out of wind - with a bang of surprise. The American writer O Henry did the same thing earlier.

His first story, “Walking Distance,” is about a young couple who love living in Memphis: Joseph Koren and his wife, Ella. They think they’re wonderfully in love for a first two years of marriage.  That is, until they have a tiff over toilet paper. All of a sudden, Ella can’t take it anymore. She says, “I can’t do it anymore, I’m dying.”  Translation: She wants a divorce.

Joe thinks Ella is nuts and she’ll cool off. He’s a cop doing extra shift work. He’s angry. Joe takes a long walk in their nice neighborhood, taking along his service revolver tucked in his belt.

You won’t figure what happens next. He’s held up by a 270-pound guy, taller than himself, with a pistol, who calls himself a bandit. Maybe turnabout isn’t fair play, but what happens in this story is frightening as well as make you laugh.

“The Bridge to China” is another beauty, its title shorthand phrase used by a divorced mother of a certain age who sells real estate. She has financed her two boys, Edward, and Cody, through school and into adulthood.  Her "China" image was used to put off embarrassing questions about life when the boys were younger.

Now she’s thinking of using a dating site to meet somebody nice, and Cody encourages her. He says to her on the phone: “Listen to you. You’re not even fifty.”

So she goes to and fills out a profile and joins.

One man’s photo pleases her. He’s not exactly smiling, she thinks. That’s a good sign.

“I’m fifty-two and a widower,” says his profile.  … I’m associate professor of English at Rhodes College. ... I have three grown daughters, who will all vouch for me.”

What happens next?  Read “The Bridge …” and see.

Every one of these stories is a treasure. Because Bausch is a philosophic dualist, he quotes another writer, Annie Field, who conjoins misery with love. She explains with what seems like admiration for the unimaginable: “… what people visit on each other out of something like love. It’s enough for all the world’s woe … you don’t even need hate to have a perfectly miserable time.”

These are the feelings that Bausch is after, among others: understanding what constitutes misery. Sometimes, it’s part of misdirected love. The first step is figuring out how to rise above it.

Read “Living in the Weather of the World” and see if it doesn’t give you some new ideas of how to deal with misery and love.

Michael D. Langan is a veteran reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.

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