Sunday, June 26, 2016
By legend, Richard Bausch's remarkable story of alcoholism and the dissolution of a marriage is the result of hacking down an 800-page novel. It is built within the frame of its main character, Walter, a middle-aged man, sitting in the back pew of a church by himself in Flagstaff, Arizona, remembering the incidents of a picnic with his family two years earlier, on Long Island. That's the day "when Irene came out on the porch and told him she couldn't make it be enough anymore." The story really is not dreary, even though it is about problem drinking and the end of a marriage. It's especially sharp on family dynamics, especially with the kids. There are five of them and two are quite distinct: William, the oldest at 14, has recently decided he wants to become a priest and is annoying everyone by loudly and piously praying for them, most often for Walter, whose point of view largely informs the story. It's actually his story in the end, a bottoming-out tale. Susan, the next oldest, copes by mocking and belittling William's sanctimony, taunting him with her ambition to become the first married woman priest to become pope. The most sharply observed passages are the family squabbles which continually erupt at the picnic. These encounters are fresh like wounds yet pass with an easy familiarity. All families have these fits of pain, though perhaps not to all these extremes. The former long novel is suggested by the dense compression between the day of the picnic and the day in the church in Flagstaff. A lot of that information is necessary to close the primary narrative arc, which is about the drinking. The day in Flagstaff is the day he stops, which is an important day for every alcoholic. Still, I think the best part of this story is what actually occupies most of it: the lacerating day of the picnic, and the personalities and interactions of Walter and his family, especially the kids. This is a pretty good one.
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff