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.