(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The fact that Richard Ford wrote the introduction to Richard Bausch’s first British collection of short stories indicates how closely Bausch is allied to such contemporary realists as Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver. As critic Paul Elie explains in Commonweal (November 9, 1990), these writers have been nicknamed the “Dirty Realists” because they write about ordinary people whose lives have taken a turn for the worse and are not likely to get any better. The fiction of the Dirty Realists is all the more poignant because the characters are perceptive enough to see how little the future holds for them.

However, Bausch’s Catholicism sets him apart from the other Dirty Realists. Where they see heartbreak and despair as simply a part of life, Bausch often views them as the product of sinful human nature. Over and over again, his characters distance themselves from each other. As a result, marriages end, families disintegrate, and individuals are left alone and desolate. “Wedlock,” from The Fireman’s Wife, and Other Stories, is about a relationship that dies after a day and a half. Once the new bride begins to view her husband objectively, rather than with the eyes of love, she first finds him ridiculous and then repulsive.

Some of Bausch’s stories may be read as showing the operation of divine grace in human life, whether by prompting someone to plead the case for forgiveness, as Tom does in “The Brace,” or by bringing people together in a new relationship, as in “The Billboard” from Rare and Endangered Species. Admittedly, in his short fiction Bausch seems much more certain about sin than he is about grace. However, he clearly believes that only by loving others can we make our own lives bearable.

“Aren’t You Happy for Me?”

The title work in Bausch’s first British collection, which previously appeared in Rare and Endangered Species, is one of the author’s most admired short stories. “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” begins with a telephone call from Melanie Ballinger in Chicago to her parents in Charlottesville, Virginia, informing them that she is pregnant and that she plans to marry the man responsible, William Coombs, who was her college literature professor. Coombs is forty years older than Melanie and, as her father John points out rather nastily, old enough to be his father, rather than his son-in-law. While Melanie is talking to her mother Mary, John realizes that if he does not pretend to accept Melanie’s decision, he will lose her, and he promises Melanie that he will work on his feelings. He never does tell her his own news: that Mary and he are getting a divorce. When out of habit John turns to Mary for comfort, he discovers that he can no longer reach her. All John and Mary have left is the past; the best they can do is to remember how happy they were when Melanie was a toddler and they were as sure of their love as Melanie and William are of theirs. “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” is typical of Bausch’s...

(The entire section is 1245 words.)