before cover

Bausch, Richard. Before, During, After. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014 (345pp.$26.95)

A roaring tedium clogs nearly every page of Richard Bausch’s new novel, Before, During, After, so-named because the principal events of the narrative are sandwiched around the World Trade Center terror attack of September 11, 2001.   Bausch, a recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award and a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is the author of eleven previous novels, eight books of short stories, and a volume of poetry. His work, like that of Ward Just or Louis Auchincloss, represents the civilized, humane and generous-in-spirit demiurge in American letters that is urbane, serious, quietly intense, and always under control. Unfortunately, this new novel dies a slow death on the page, despite the presence of themes like love, political terrorism, rape and friendship.

The jacket copy has it just about right—the novel is a “gorgeously rendered, passionate account of a relationship threatened by secrets, set against the backdrop of national tragedy.” Natasha Barrett is a very youthful congressional aide to a Senator in Washington, not as devoted to her work as she thinks she should be. When she meets Michael Faulk, an Episcopal priest (who hails from her hometown, Memphis) nearly twenty years her elder, an attraction develops and they fall in love. Faulk is leaving the priesthood, seeking some other kind of world. Hence, early in the novel, the reader confronts the May-September romance theme, along with the theme of the religious man whose faith is in doubt. Long, ornate passages of interior dialogue probe the inner psychological states of every character. Our lovers spend a lot of time drinking alcohol and making love, while the reader tries to stay awake. Finally, they set a date and Faulk leaves for New York to attend a wedding while Natasha keeps a date with a friend to go to Jamaica. Then 9-11 happens, and Natasha thinks Michael has been killed in the attack (Michael having conveniently mentioned that he might go sightseeing at the towers…).

Sadly, Natasha can’t phone Michael and she thinks he’s dead. So, she gets drunk and is assaulted by a fellow-tourist on the beach. But Michael isn’t dead and when they get together, Natasha is brutalized by her secret while Michael suspects she’s had an affair.  Everybody in the novel thinks about, talks about, and mulls over the new political reality of America and how “everything has changed.” Finally, things work out for Michael and Natasha and they sally forth on their new marriage in a tiny house in Memphis. How will all this work out? Who knows? These and other conceits build an elaborate density that evaporates under any careful gaze. The rapist is a cartoon character at best. Natasha’s friends are dense as mud, insensitive to her privacy concerns and meddlers par excellance. Nobody in the novel seems concerned about the extremely heavy drinking, which appears as another conceit.

A novel is most often made alive by its characters. Before, During, After, fails to convince the reader of its most fundamental directive—the necessity to create an imaginative world that is compelling and real, with characters who move the reader in many ways. Nothing on the page lives and breathes. As backdrop, the terror attack is window dressing, like fluorescent lighting and plastic potted plants. The supporting players (Natasha’s aunt and friends, Michael’s fellow priests) recite their lines, and Bausch lays on the paint thickly, but without ultimate purpose. “Gorgeously rendered,” indeed, the book disappears into its own fog.