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Artful characters generate empathy

Fiction review • Short stories about world-weary people look at private places.

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In the epigraph to his new collection of short stories, "Something Is Out There," Richard Bausch quotes from Robert Stone's "Damascus Gate":

"Perhaps you know Malraux's Anti-memoirs? His priest tells us that people are much more unhappy than one might think."

The unhappy characters in Bausch's stories suffer from loneliness, despair and jealousy; greed, fear and guilt. Many of them drink or drug too much, like the characters in Stone's "Fun With Problems." Stone is so tough on his characters that you see them as alcoholics or druggies before you see them as humans.

That's not so with Bausch's characters, whose histories and personalities are depicted so artfully you can't help but feel for them.

In "Sixty-five Million Years," arthritic Father Hennessey has become apathetic with the ordinariness of his parishioners's confessions. One evening, a mysterious young boy confesses his sin of doubt. The priest becomes so preoccupied with the boy's ethereality that he wonders whether the boy was perhaps an angel 'sent to goad him out of his apathy."

"Immigration" is the story of the O'Keefes, who have been married for about a year. Michael's student visa has expired, and the couple, to prove they're married, must present their birth records, tax forms and marriage license to Immigration.

Rita fears for the success of their marriage: She says she loves Michael but doesn't feel it.

In the collection's title story, it's Christmastime, a snowstorm rages through rural Virginia, and Paula and her family have just returned home from the hospital. Paula's husband has been shot by Brice, a former business partner. The family waits for another relative, Christopher, to show up when a friendly but mysterious stranger arrives. Aunt Dora is convinced that Brice, Christopher and the stranger were all part of some drug deal gone wrong and that fear spreads throughout the family.

Other stories involve adultery, loneliness and just plain bad luck. But Bausch, whose work has appeared in the "Best American Short Stories," leavens some of his world-weary characters with a sense of humor. A boy named Virgil, surprised when the lights go out, says, "I'm blind"; elderly Georgia, who is dying and can't speak, writes on one piece of paper, "I'm dying," and on a second, "For a clementine."

What these brilliant stories speak to is best said in one of the stories: "The chain of events that made up the desperate seriousness of the private self."

Joseph Peschel (josephpeschel.com) is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota.

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