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Richard Bausch: Rebel Powers

Once again, Bausch gives us a novel about people dealing with their demons, struggling in the face of life’s little problems and a family slowly falling apart. A family falling apart, he (in the form of the narrator) tells us is like a civilisation falling apart. Historically, you can see it but when you are there and part of it, you don’t really notice it till it is too late. This book has an added edge as all the major male characters, the narrator excluded, seem to have serious weaknesses in them.

The story is narrated by Thomas Boudreaux, a forty-year old man, happily divorced and running a book store on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. He recounts the story of the breakup of his family when he was seventeen-eighteen. It is set in 1967-1968 when the anti-Vietnam War movement was gaining strength and Lyndon B Johnson was losing strength. Thomas’ father, Daniel, was a sergeant in the Air Force. He had been to Vietnam (early on) where he had been captured and wounded by his captors. He had escaped but, as we learn later, he returned a very much changed man and this had a profound effect on his wife, Connie. Connie is the daughter of a stern and now retired judge (Grandfather Tinan), who lives in North Dakota and very much disapproved of Daniel. Early on in the novel, Daniel is arrested by the military police for stealing a government typewriter and writing bad checks. He is sentenced to two years in the penitentiary in Wilson Creek, Wyoming. Connie, Thomas and Lisa (the daughter of the family) move to Demara, in the southern part of Virginia (from Andrews Air Force base in Maryland) where Connie has a job.

Things don’t work out in Virginia and the family heads for Wilson Creek, via a visit to Grandfather Tinan. On the train they meet Penny Holt, who is going to visit her putative fiancée, Buddy, with Buddy’s brother, John, known as Chummy. Connie, who has longed for adult company, spends time with them, not least because Buddy is in prison (allegedly for refusing to serve in Vietnam), though in Leavenworth, not Wilson Creek. Thomas, who has not liked his grandfather in the past, warms to him during the visit, though his daughter still feels her independence threatened.

The three head off for Wilson Creek, where they stay with Mrs. Wilson (no relation), who has just thrown out a tenant for watching porno films and later throws out his film-watching buddy, who was going to paint the porch but didn’t. Connie gets a job but Thomas and Lisa are unhappy, wanting to go home, wherever home may be. Indeed, for the children stability is key. Connie visits Daniel in prison but he does not wants the children to see him there so they don’t. Meanwhile, Penny shows up and takes the room vacated by the porno-watcher. She and Connie grow closer. All the while it is gradually coming clearer that this family is slowly, very slowly, breaking asunder and, when Daniel does come out, this finally happens, culminating in a big break-up, the day of the Robert Kennedy assassination. Everyone was looking for stability and a happy family (including Penny), except for Connie, who no longer wanted Daniel since he was not the same as the man she married.

Bausch skilfully portrays the gradual break-up, both from the point of view of Thomas age 17/18 and Thomas aged 40. He shows that the men don’t seem sensitive to these issues – from Daniel, Buddy and John, Grandfather Tinan, the two porno watchers and Mrs. Wilson’s son, Russell. Connie is the key. Here is a woman who feels her responsibility as a wife and mother very strongly but, at the same time, feels she has been short-changed by the two men in her life, her father and her post-Vietnam husband. Thomas is in that difficult situation where he understands some of it but not all of it and struggles, later in life, to make sense of it which he more or less does. It is a fine book, though there are no fireworks but Bausch certainly knows to how tell the low-key, relationship in difficulty story.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Houghton Mifflin