Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard Bausch's "Design"

Reading this Richard Bausch story again, a favorite of mine for fifteen years (another of the stories my good friend the writer Mary Burns pointed me toward) (and having met Bausch himself since the last time I read it), I’m as pleased as I was the first time. This story appeared in the 1990 Best American Short Stories anthology, and, in fact, Bausch had two stories in that volume. I think he and Alice Munro are the only authors ever to pull that off (someone give me a shout about this if you know). It is so perfect that this story, which then was entitled “A Kind of Simple, Happy Grace,” is one of Bausch’s honored two that make up that achievement. James Wood, in his fine book How Fiction Works, sometimes seems not to have a clue about how fiction actually works, and I think it is because he’s so taken by the craft aspect, which can be talked about at length. Only God knows how the art aspect works, and that part is so mysterious and magical even God hasn’t bothered to write a book about it. Perhaps Wood's intention (I’ll confess here I’m not through the book though I am through the section on characters in fiction) is to explore the question How Fiction Works rather than answer it. I haven’t read as much fiction as Wood has (very few people have – he’s amazing), but I’ve written more of it, and I can tell you the word “works” in his title is tricky. Anybody who ever ran a workshop knows it. It’s avoided. Works for who? What constitutes working? The word, when you think of it, is intentionally vague. “Well, I dunno, it just works, works for me anyway.” That kinda thing.

In the chapters where Wood is pondering character, he turns to the traditional terminology of round characters and flat ones (well, not so traditional – the terms, Wood advises us, come from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), and he (Wood) concludes all characters, even the best ones in the best fiction, are somewhat flat, because they can’t be round, because round characters are “real.” Real people are round characters, and fiction can’t go that far in creating characters, so in fiction they’re all a bit flat. And for damn sure, you aren’t going to have any round characters in short fiction because it’s too short to make them even a little bit round! Take a look (How Fiction Works, p 128), I think he really says this.

We have to find our way to stories. We tease them up from the subconscious by following a trail we hope we’re seeing but maybe not and maybe that’s okay, just keep going. The trail is mostly made up of characters who emerge as we write. In the back of the Best American Short Stories anthology in which the story we’re talking about appeared, Bausch reported that one summer it came to pass that he had to drive to work on “a route that led [him] past several churches, ranged within sight of each other in the lovely hills beyond McClean, Virginia.” He said that from that landscape he began to imagine a story about two men from different denominations and that the story would somehow involve them finally coming into “a sort of helpless embrace.” Bausch had no idea what the embrace would be about, who they men were, or how the story would get there. He couldn’t know that because he didn’t know the men yet. I love this, the story and understanding the background of it. What story was whispering to Richard Bausch from this landscape? After many blind alleys, he finally found it. He says it took him seven years to write. “So simple,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest idea why.”

“Design” begins with the Catholic priest Father Russell watching from his window the aging Baptist minister Reverend Tarmigian raking his leaves across the way even though the leaves weren’t finished falling and the old man was in no condition to be doing it. Tarmigian, ailing, pale and just a little dottering, didn’t seem at all well even from a distance, and Father Russell was going through a bad time, worried about everything, including but not limited to the old minister on the opposite side of the deep gully separating their churches. To get from one to the other one had to walk down to the sidewalk by the road, and walk over there, crossing the gully on a sidewalk bridge. Finally, having watched the old man struggle in his work, Russell had to go over there, even though through the years he’d actually avoided contact with the Reverend, idle conversation, waste of time, a whole flock on the right side of the gully to worry about, plate full, can’t take on the scene that’s going on over on the other side. So guilt came to roost. Time to go talk.

I think Tarmigian is one of the most interesting and fine characters I’ve seen in contemporary short fiction. I love this man, bright eyed though dying, still raking the leaves of the massive churchyard, still carrying the mulch up the hill to the cemetery where his wife, dead twenty years, was buried. Pausing there to pray a while, and back down the hill to work. Teasing Father Russell for being so worried about him. What are characters in fiction? James Wood asks rhetorically as he opens his discussion on character development in his book. But it isn’t even a question worth asking, is it? It’s like asking, What are people for? One might as well ask what are atoms in a compound? What are rivers through a field?

While parrying Father Russell’s concern about his well being, Tarmigian lapses into preacher shop-talk, telling him that recently he’s been counseling a couple who have been married 52 years and want a divorce. Tarmigian is on the one hand wryly amused, on the other hand enthralled by the question. He tells Russell, it’s like the woman suddenly slaps herself on the forehead and says, what were we thinking? Fifty two years! The couple can’t agree on what television show to watch. Damn sure they don’t want to sleep in the same room! Those are just a couple of the points of contention, but fifty two years is the main thing – when marriage was invented, nobody ever dreamed two people would have to co-habitate until they were blue in the face. One farts a lot, the other is stone deaf, years ago they went beyond knowing each other well into the region of knowing each other too well, then past that into the zone of once again not knowing each other at all. This is what hard labor and crusades and disease were for, to kill off one of them, most likely the male, mercifully of course, we hope, in some regular civilized death way, but one of them has to go. Read the fine print! Until death do us part!

Father Russell, in the story, makes three trips over to Tarmigian’s place, worried about him. In the second trip, Russell has traipsed over to the very frail Tarmigian’s side of the gully to get him to stop working and go to a doctor. Russell is having a crisis, ostensibly so worried about Tarmigian that he can’t sleep, though we, the reader, can see this is a case of classic projection and Russell is easily as worried about himself. Celibacy! He’s forty three, alone, coming unstuck from reality. He has is own neurotic past to deal with and he can’t deal with it by himself in his creaky old rectory, nobody can!, his flock’s going walkabout all over town, the past haunts even those of us who aren’t neurotic, his faith-tormented present isn't feeling so great either, and his prospects looking ahead are pretty grim if you ask me (and for sure he'd agree, in this mid-life mood of his). Imagine the storms inside this man. And don’t forget, for a priest, this kind of worry about self is masturbation pure and simple – self indulgence – so he’s (convinced himself he's very) worried not about himself but about the guy next door. And also. Russell is a good guy and really IS worried about the guy next door.

Tarmigian meantime is on Russell’s last nerve, seeming to push his worry to the limit. In this second trip over, Russell comes into the church and finds Tarmigian, normally dottering even on terra firma, teetering at the very tip top of a rickety ladder painting the upper regions of the interior of his church. You have to know Richard Bausch to know how he loved writing this, so funny I’m laughing in my chair right now. When Tarmigian coughs, the ladder tips this way and that, and he coughs a lot. One hand’s fully bandaged from a mishap with the sharp lid of a paint can, and that’s the hand Tarmigian holds on with – the paint brush is in the other one. Father Russell fairly seizes up watching all this.

In the third visit of Father Russell over to Tarmigian’s place, when the priest arrives, Tarmigian is nowhere to be found, and Russell places himself in a pew in Tarmigian’s church and waits. Russell is a wreck, on the edge of a breakdown, worried about Tarmigian's health and, of course, himself. He's shaking and upset, holding back tears. He really wants to go to confession to this old minister, his father in a way and his brother in another way and in yet another way his priest, but Baptists aren’t into the sacrament of penance, dang. Finally Russell hears Tarmigian’s voice, out on the front walk with someone, talking loudly as he strolls into the church. He's walking into the church with an old woman, and the old woman is deaf. Tarmigian sees the priest sitting there and welcomes him, introduces him to the woman, who turns out to be guess who, the woman of the 52 year marriage on the rocks, and asks her to settle a moment in a back pew while he talks with the priest who seems to be wigging out. As they talk, the woman shouts she can't hear what they're saying and that she's deaf as a post. Meantime Tarmigian is calming the priest. The woman yells a couple more times, "Hey, what's going on over there. I can't hear a thing. I am stone cold deaf!" Tarmigian is aware she's trying to figure out what they're talking about, these two men of different cloths – what an odd thing. “What’s going on?” she shouts. It’s puzzling. She can see one of them is upset. "Hey!" she shouts, kindly, but just letting them know she's lost as to what's happening. Tarmigian, ever more frail, talks Russell down best he can, telling him to relax, all's well, it gets like this sometimes, don't worry – "I'm fine,” he assures the priest, “don't worry about me," etc. Russell is in tears. They are a few feet away from the deaf woman in the pew who's watching them but can't hear them. Finally Tarmigian says to Father Russell, turned away so his lips can’t be read, something like, so, are you gonna be okay? and then he says, "C'mon, let's shake hands so she sees us -- no, wait," he says, "let's embrace. Let's give her an ecumenical thrill." And they do. Of course, in the story, the hug is way more important than just performance for a deaf onlooker. We’re in Russell’s third person limited point of view and he feels the skeletal remains of his wise and kindly old Baptist neighbor, experiences the embrace as confession, and nearly collapses in the old man's arms. Tarmigian, we assume, experiences it as fellow reverend and father figure to the young priest, as spiritual healer and marriage counselor to the old woman.

Under that different title, you can find the story in the 1990 Best American Short Stories. I recently read it in my copy of The Stories of Richard Bausch. I wish James Wood would read “Design.” What is character in fiction? It’s art. It’s a bunch of words the artist makes live and breathe so it’s a round character we’re better for having met, this old minister Tarmigian. The author found this man among the churches in the landscape he was driving through at the time. He imagined an embrace and found his way to it. Inspired, he knew just the brushstrokes to give us and exactly when to stop. He got two stories into the 1990 Best American. This one took him seven years. That’s how fiction “works.” So simple.


  1. Phil, thank you for taking time to work out this discussion of what "works" or "doesn't work" in fiction by giving us Bausch's story as a counterpoint to Woods (if I'm reading you right).I haven't read Woods, but I have heard poets talk about poems that "work" with great finality in a workshop, and I have seen other poets almost spit when they hear that term "work." This sort of value judgement smacks of tearing down the community in which the dialogue takes place, not building it up so that it can nurture all of us to do our good and simple work, as writers. For someone like Bausch to work seven years on a story and then contribute it to the community, now, for me, that works. I'm going to trust this writer to give me something from his heart, something that will continue to work in my heart the way, as you said, that image whispered to him from the landscape. The work is in the listening; the work is in the noticing. That's the first work.

  2. It is true, that's the first work. There's a second phase also. Once the piece is in draft, you know you have the bones but there's something missing, something that you would never even know was missing unless you'd gotten the piece in a draft. In "Design" terms, to make Tarmigian a round character, we needed a round catalyst, Russell -- he had to grow in the author's mind in order for the character Tarmigian to gel. Or Nick in Gatsby to make Gatsby round. And on and on. Thanks, Jeanie, for jumping in and I hope you're doing great.

  3. "...something that you would never even know was missing unless you'd gotten the piece in a draft..."

    I think that is a key ingredient to every writing process. We walk around with an idea in our heads and we nurse it and believe in it, before we put it down. We come to love it in the abstract as if it was already written, but it isn't, of course. And that's all a necessary part of the gestation process. But like you say, until we start the hard process of writing, we can't know what is really missing. This applies to everything -- fiction, poetry, all of it. This is one of the hardest things for beginning writers to accept and understand, and it’s the lesson more seasoned writers keep learning, but not with any less pain in that learning, I would venture.