Thanksgiving Night

I think it’s a rather lovely coincidence that I happened to pick this novel up last week and now find myself reviewing it on Thanksgiving Day, no less. A while back, when I was writing about Jonathan Franzen, I think, someone asked me who I thought was the greatest living American writer. Or at least that’s the question I retained. The answer is, maybe, possibly, Richard Bausch. Is he well known at all in the States? Only he seems scarcely to have been heard of over here, despite a string of novels and short story collections. What I found in his novel, Thanksgiving Night, was a meditation on the paradoxical bonds of love and hate that bind families together, very similar to Franzen territory except that it concerns people with less money and fewer prospects, and it was written in a luminescent prose, lit up from within by the compassion Bausch has for his characters. It was a portrait of small town America, sad and cautiously optimistic, delivered so gently that you might almost miss the dramatic events that fill its pages, near-death experiences, rages and rampages, infidelity, loss and the endless quest for dependable love. I thought it was wonderful.

The novel opens in a warm Virginia late summer with Oliver Ward, general building contractor, turning up at the house of two crazy old ladies, Holly and Fiona. By one of those generational twists of fate they are aunt and niece despite being only a couple of years apart in age, and have spent most of their lives living together, if not near one another, and don’t really know how to do anything different. This is becoming problematic as old age and reduced circumstances mean they have little to do but take their frustrated emotions out on one another, and the results are always quite spectacular. Oliver appears at the door in response to a telephone summons that neither will admit to having made (it turns out to have been Fiona) and interrupts a huge row. Seizing his advantage, he fabricates a $60 call-out charge and is sent to see Holly’s son, Will Butterfield, to get his money. Will, owner of a local bookstore, lives a few streets away with his second wife, Elizabeth. His first wife, also called Elizabeth, walked out on her family as they were heading home after what had appeared to be a perfectly normal vacation. Many years have passed since then, his children have grown, and his new marriage seems to have given him recompense and stability, but it will turn out over the course of the narrative that this shocking event has left a deeper legacy of darkness and resentment than Will wants to admit.

As the story unfolds, so the links between the families of Oliver Ward and Holly Butterfield will develop and grow, the lives of the family members intertwining in unexpected ways. Everyone has their particular story, their particular wounds and sorrows. There’s Oliver’s daughter, Alison, trying to hold her family together, bringing up her anxious and withdrawn children after a painful divorce, trying to help her rather unreliable father to keep in work and off the drink. And Will’s second wife, Elizabeth, at the end of her tether, thanks to the endless ructions caused by the two elderly ladies and troubled by her problem students at the school where she works. Then there are Will’s children from his first marriage – in particular, the self-obsessed Gail, whose announcement that she is determined to search for her mother enrages Will. And acting as a buffer and a foil, is the elderly Catholic priest, Brother Fire, friend to both Holly and Fiona, who is suffering a crisis of faith for the first time in his long life of devoted service.

This is one of those sprawling narratives that spawns a host of sub-plots all of which rebound and relate to each other. But one of the main themes that arises again and again, only so gently and softly that you have to look close to spot it, is the problems caused by lack of self-control. Holly and Fiona can’t control their emotions, Oliver can’t resist a drink, Elizabeth has lost control of her negativity, Gail can’t control her desire to inflict pain on those she loves. But Bausch’s storytelling is alive with sympathy for the origins of these weaknesses. ‘The whole condition of the living universe,’ he writes, ‘understood in the viscera and the bone, is the feeling of something carved, by courage and necessity, out of fear.’ Life is often hard and unrewarding for the characters in this novel, struggling to make ends’ meet or to keep anxiety at bay. It’s no wonder that they sometimes forget themselves to steal the little bits of reward and revenge that they think they need.

And this inclination is exacerbated by the natural condition of the family, Bausch suggests. His families are places where self-control is easily lost because the other members are too close, somehow, to be seen. The familiarity that breeds security and comfort can cross a line and become license to attack or neglect, depending on the circumstances. In the heart of the family, we are most open, most ourselves, most forgetful of the strictures of ethics. We lash out at the people we believe we can depend upon to take it. Richard Bausch explores various possible consequences of this as events speed up towards Thanksgiving Day and the dinner that will unite both families and witness the climax of the novel’s storylines. There are winners and losers, of course, but the cautious optimism retains the upper hand. The ideological heart of the novel beats in the breast of the priest, Brother Fire, who has the revelation that real, salvationary help from one member of humanity to another ‘is usually a matter not much more complicated than a kind word or gesture at the right time.’ It’s exemplary of the quiet, clear ethos of this novel, and it may just be true. May kindness be our watchword, and the source of much gratitude.

Over at the blog hop today, the question is: what makes a modern classic? Ouch, that’s a hard one, but undoubtedly beautiful writing and universal themes play their part. A classic has to last through the ages, so it needs these stable qualities. But it also has to reveal something particular about its age, about the ideas that dominated the time of its writing. Margaret Atwood writes modern classics, but whether she’ll be remembered for her dystopian fictions or her feminist-inspired novels, I’m not sure. Kazuo Ishiguro ought to be up there too, for his clever, quirky works. And I feel sure that Richard Bausch deserves to join the ranks, although this novel doesn’t have quite enough of a punch or a hook to hold it in the public eye for generations to come. I’m looking forward to reading more of him, though, and hopefully stumbling on the book that will assure him his place in the pantheon of classic writers.

26 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Night

  1. I’m very thankful for this recommendation! I’ve never heard of this author, but I love a good sprawling family tale that delves into the intricacies of personalities and legacies, and this one sounds like just the ticket. Off to reserve it at the library 🙂

    I also agree with your assessment of criteria for “classic” literature, especially that it should “reveal something about its age, about the ideas that dominated its time of writing.” I might add Richard Russo to that category for his portrayals of life in America in the late 20th and early 21st century.

  2. Litlove, what a lovely review–it makes me have a feel for the book and a desire to read it. I agree with your criteria for classics. But sometimes it’s luck too, or the movies! I think that “Esther Waters” should be a classic, but hardly anyone has heard of it. Maybe if someone made a movie of it.

  3. Hmmm…I had recently been wondering if there were many books out there with a Thanksgiving theme, but I never got around to doing any research. Leave it to my Brit book blogging friend to find one! I haven’t read any Richard Bausch, but you’ve made me think I ought to give him a try. Modern classics are very difficult to define, aren’t they? I think your criteria are perfect, but I’m always hard-pressed to nail down actual names of authors.

  4. I really liked The Corrections, but haven’t been able to face Freedom just yet–too much hype. When it dies down a bit, I’ll read it and will probably like it. Interesting thoughts about Margaret Atwood. It’s hard to see the Oryx and Crake books becoming classics, but Handmaid’s Tale could very well make it.

  5. Atwood is among the modern literary writers of our time who consistently produces work of a standard that I consider to be instant classics. I find it quite hard to separate her writing into dystopian and feminine categories. I have read enough of her work to say that whatever genre/ topic/ subject she chooses to write about; it’s the ‘fabric’ of her writing that stands out. She definitely has an original voice.

  6. Dear LL, Hmmm….where have I heard of Bausch? I had to look on line at his list of books and none rang a bell. But the name … so familiar. And then it came to me – Bach, as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. So no, that’s not the Thanksgiving Night author…!!!! Which means I don’t know this author! and feel quite remiss in not having heard of him. Well, I have checked (and double- and triple-checked) my Christmas vacation several times over the past few weeks at work, to assure myself that I have a full week off during the holidiay and I . am. going. to. read!!!! and discover some “new for me” authors.
    Herein, Bausch goes on the list. You have piqued my curiosity. We have two more days of Thanksgiving holiday, well, the weekend really and though I might get some reading in, HM and I both have work to do. Drat.
    I am actually hoping we might get to the bookstore tonight – could surely use a tour around the shelves, which are always always re-arranged during the holiday so you see different things.

    In the meantime, I did enjoy your riff on intellectual discussion and have to agree/embrace wholehearedly on the non-confrontation thing. It’s not that I let things slide. It’s just that I don’t do well in discussions where there is no discussion but only a “right” and a “wrong.” When people articulate, discussions are awesome. Oh, I miss that sometimes, that is to say, there’s not enough of it. We get so busy and lose the art of conversation much less discussion!

    I’m rambling. We’ve been cooking and entertaining for two days and I need to learn the word “nap.” er, power nap.

    More later–
    Oh, in the Midwest

  7. I’ve never heard of Bausch. I agree that Ishiguro could possibly be a classic…I suspect we’ll 25 years or so from now. Atwood certainly has the rep., but I have yet to read any of her.

  8. Thanks for introducing me to Bausch. Here in Canada, I don’t think I’ve seen his works displayed at all, definitely not like Franzen… maybe I haven’t noticed. If you would consider his books as modern classics, then I must get hold of them. Also, I’m glad you would consider Ishiguro. I’ve enjoyed all his works… although some much more than others.

  9. So. I read your stunning review, hopped over to the bookshelf, sure I would find Mr. Bausch in residence (for I have heard of him, really; his short stories are gems), and –gasp!–he was not there. *Sound of head banging against wall* This situation must be rectified, and quickly, via library or bookstore. Thanks to you I will seek this book out first…

    As for classics, that’s a tough one. A true “classic” withstands the “test of time” as they say. So how much time does one allot a contemporary work? Atwood is a perfect example, though. To be honest, her feminist novels are dystopian in their way, thinks me (cf. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Edible Woman, etc.); her Doris Lessing-like futurism way way “out there.” And where should we put her historical fictions (e.g., Alias Grace). She defies classification. Perhaps that is another definition of “classic”…

    Of all the food consumed here this weekend, that of thought remains the most enjoyable. Thank you!

  10. I’ve heard of Bausch but never read him – after this review I intend to quickly rectify this – you brought the characters and the story to life for me simply through your review!

  11. I haven’t heard of Bausch, but I don’t know whether that means he isn’t well-known over here or whether it just means I’m not well-informed. I’m guessing that if he were really popular I’d have heard of him; you certainly make him sound like a writer worth being aware of!

  12. Ingrid – always delighted to find another Atwood fan!

    Becca – this would be a good choice for you, I think. Really gorgeous writing and a tender perspective on family life. And I completely agree that Richard Russo ought to be in any potential classics line-up. He’ll be the Jerome K Jerome of his age.

    Kristi – I’d love to know what you think of both Franzen and Bausch!

    Lilian – don’t the movies make a difference! I will look out for Esther Waters now, although I admit I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it!

    Stu – It’s good to know that someone other than me likes him!

    Debnance – that’s so nice of you, thank you!

    GT – well I really hope you’ll enjoy him if you do.

    Emily – lol! It’s like living in a place, you never do the tourist thing. 🙂 I’ll bet most bloggers out there have read many more 19th century British classics than I have!

    Amy – I so often do that – wait until the hype surrounding a book dies down. It was very surprising that I read the Franzen so quick off the mark, but I had a sudden yen for a book like that, and he happened to hove into view. I quite agree about The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Caroline – ooh good! I’d love to know what you think of him, if you do get hold of his books.

    Worldly Obsessions – well you’re preaching to the converted here, as far as Atwood is concerned. Recently, I read her book about writing, Negotiating With the Dead. That was marvellous too. She really can do anything.

    Parrish Lantern – both very fine writers, yes.

  13. Oh – lol! yes, I’ve done that sort of thing many a time, and mistaken a Bach for a Bausch or something similar. Worst of all, just recently I’ve taken to forgetting what I’ve got on my shelves and buying duplicate copies. Help! Encroaching senior moments! I hope you got to the bookstore – no holiday is complete without a good browse on a vacation day with that lovely sense of freedom and spaciousness. And I hope your holiday was altogether lovely, with plenty of time to read and do all the things you wanted! As for discussion, yes, I think it can be hard to have in a really satisfactory way unless a) someone experienced is nominally in charge or b) the participants know each other very well and are similarly responsive in that situation, either all non-combative, or all happy to be a little combative, or whatever. With the right combination of folk, discussion can be great – the wrong combination though can be disaster!

    Tony D – very glad to find another Ishiguro fan. It’s been a while since I read him, in fact, and I should return to his work.

    Arti – which ones have you liked best? I loved Remains of the Day, and An Artist of the Floating World. I still have several of his yet to read! It may be that Bausch isn’t widely available outside America – I had to order his books because they don’t appear on the shelves of any UK store. But I’d love to know what you think of him if you read him.

    ds – oh I’d love to know what you think of Bausch if you can get hold of him. I loved this one – very tender and compassionate. And so glad you are also an Atwood fan. I read The Edible Woman when I was 19 and every book of hers I’ve read since then has stayed with me. That’s certainly staying power of a kind! I loved your remark about food for thought – so very true.

    Dorothy – you’re welcome! I’d love to know what you think of him if you read him.

    Ben – do let me know what you think!

    Courtney – I’d love to know your thoughts on him. I, meanwhile, MUST read Pat Conroy. I’ve been meaning to for the longest time (and I always associate him with you!).

    Teresa – I get the strong impression that he is not that well known! Which is a shame, because he writes like a dream. I’d be very interested to know what you make of him, if you get hold of his books.

    Lisa – so glad to see another vote for Atwood. She is such a fine writer, and I’d love to know what you think of Bausch.

    Grad – I can see him working for you – he writes very well about family life – full of humour and sympathy and a sharp understanding of how ghastly things can get at times!

  14. I’ve heard of Bausch but probably only because my husband worked in bookstores for so many years. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of his books. Will definitely keep this one in mind.

  15. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are my favorites. Maybe because I post about “Books Into Films”, I’m particularly interested in the adaptations of these two novels as well. And BTW, do you know that Ishiguro has written a screenplay, that’s The White Countess? I’ve enjoyed that movie too, with Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, and a couple of the Redgraves.

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