Seeking to fulfill fiction’s eternal mandate to capture the way we live now (as Anthony Trollope put it in 1875), some contemporary writers reach for stylistic innovations: a novel in e-mails, or a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. These can be interesting strategies, but Richard Bausch prefers the time-honored techniques of scrupulous observation and straightforward storytelling — which is not say that his work is simple. As he empathetically investigates his characters, Bausch uncovers thoughts and feelings as tangled and troubled as the world around them. Turmoil within is inextricably linked to disorder without in his new novel, which depicts an intensely personal drama set in motion by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Natasha Barrett and Michael Faulk are already carrying plenty of emotional baggage when they meet in Washington, D.C., in April 2001. Natasha is restless in her job with a US senator and not yet over the brutal end of her affair with a married photographer. She drinks a lot and yearns to resume her youthful commitment to painting. Michael is an Episcopal priest in Memphis who has just decided to leave the ministry, which he’s chagrined to realize will please his aggressively anti-religious father. Divorced for three years, he’s nonetheless hurt that his former wife is about to remarry. Natasha and Michael’s growing love is tenderly portrayed, but they are very quick to assume it will give them happiness that so far has eluded them.
These complicated back stories are traced with Bausch’s customary deftness and delicacy, his protagonists placed within a carefully drawn web of relationships that further illuminate their personalities. We have a good sense of the fault lines in this loving couple by the time Natasha flies to Jamaica on Aug. 31 for a vacation before their marriage, leaving Michael to attend the wedding of a family friend in New York. They don’t have unusual or insurmountable problems, but their personal weaknesses are about to connect with the forces of history.
Bausch employs chilling understatement to convey the horror, disbelief, and disorientation experienced on Sept. 11, but the attacks are not what divide his narrative into “Before, During, After.” The title relates to a violent ordeal undergone by Natasha in Jamaica, and two-thirds of the novel takes place after, as she numbly tries to recover on her own while a baffled Michael wonders what happened. Natasha can’t tell him — or anyone — because she half-believes it was her fault, provoked by drinking and drug-taking during the desperate hours when she was unable to reach Michael by phone and feared he had been killed.
When she finally arrives in Memphis, she insists that she is simply “in shock . . . like everyone else in this country,” and she bitterly resents the worried probing of her fiance, grandmother, and friends, to whom it’s abundantly clear that she’s hiding something. If they would just back off, she snarls, she could “process all this the way I need to without everybody questioning me.”
Inability to communicate with people you love is a perennial theme for Bausch, who persuasively charts the lurching back-and-forth of Natasha and Michael’s attempt “to learn all over how to be at ease with each other.” They marry as planned; sometimes “it was as things had once been between them,” and it seems the wall of silence Natasha has erected will slowly crumble without the need for any painful revelations. But there are as many moments when she’s again engulfed by panic and anger; denied any explanation, Michael begins to suspect she had an affair in Jamaica. Thrumming underneath their private struggles is the constant drumbeat of public anxiety over war in Afghanistan, anthrax-laced letters in the United States, and terrorists apparently everywhere.
Bausch’s leisurely pacing is faithful to the undramatic rhythms of real life, and he sticks closely to his main characters’ points of view. This may frustrate readers who prefer fiction with more overt displays of authorial insight, and those looking for a Big Statement about 9/11 will look in vain here. Bausch has always professed a Chekhovian credo that quiet attention to the details is more truthful and revealing than grand gestures. The moving but tentative final scene keeps faith with that.Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”