Royal Pains

In Richard Bausch's latest novel, forget Y2K. There's trouble enough in Point Royal.



"The truth in fiction is felt life. Life, as we know, is trouble and really only interesting in terms of trouble," writer Richard Bausch once observed in an interview with FailBetter.com, an online literary quarterly.

The felt life and trouble: The stuff, then, of fiction, according to Bausch, nationally recognized, award-winning author and teacher of creative writing at the University of Memphis. It's the very stuff that distinguishes Thanksgiving Night (HarperCollins), Bausch's latest novel.

The setting is Point Royal, Virginia. The season is fall. And the year is 1999, the end of the millennium and the eve of destruction if you're buying into the Y2K buzz. But nobody in Thanksgiving Night is buying it. They don't have to. There's already trouble enough.

In a house on Temporary Road, Holly and her aunt Fiona (aka the Crazies) are aging eccentrics locked in a lifelong love/hate relationship. Their solution to the problem is to build a wall to divide the house they share, and Oliver Ward --a widower, Vietnam vet, and handyman with construction skills-- is the man for the job. After meeting Holly and Fiona, he's also a man due for a drink -- make that drinks -- which lands him in a drunk tank. But at least he avoids a run-in with Sergeant Alison Ward Lawrence, the adult daughter he lives with, who has enough on her hands as a single mother of two: a charming daughter, Kaylie, and a 14-year-old son given to nightmares and sleepwalking, Jonathan.

Jonathan's a sensitive kid and wise beyond his years, as Elizabeth, a teacher of his, knows. But Elizabeth's got her hands full too: In addition to the migraines she suffers, she's got a creepy student named Calvin who one time grabs her by the throat and another time threatens her with a knife -- this while her husband Will (Holly's son) spends his working hours behind the counter of his bookstore and his off hours battling the Crazies and his grown kids (Gail and Mark) by a previous marriage. Gail, for her part, is trying to track down her mother, who fled the family years ago. And Mark? He's a Web-site designer, a shadowy presence at best. Not so shadowy: Ariana, a sexy super-neurotic who puts the make on Will, which sends Elizabeth, days before Thanksgiving, packing.

Give thanks, though, for Father Fire (pronounced fear-ay), the father confessor in the middle of these intersecting lives. All he's got on his mind is the lousy poetry written by the assistant priest at St. Augustine's, the unholy thoughts of a teacher named Mr. Petit (who's guilt-ridden to the point of suicide for wanting to put the make on Jonathan), the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, and Fire's own doubts about his future in the priesthood.

And as for Richard Bausch, who fairly, tenderly portrays these lives, the good behavior and the bad? In the words of Elizabeth on her husband Will: "There was an evenness about him, a sense that he was only provisionally present, only looking around."

Only looking around? Go ask Alison:

"The secret heat of experience, for Alison, involves the quality of attention," the omniscient narrator of Thanksgiving Night tells us. "One learns to appreciate; one struggles to be good enough for it, strong enough, awake enough. You raise your head out of the dark and look around. And if there's luck, and you persist, elements of your own ragged, hard-to-live life begin to reveal their indispensable shimmer" -- a shimmer otherwise known, in the words of Richard Bausch, as a by-product of the felt life, the lived life, its troubles too, and the stuff of good fiction.

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