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The Stories of Richard Bausch
By Richard Bausch
HarperCollins, 651 pp., $29.95

It has been said that living is like licking honey off a thorn. So too is reading a Richard Bausch story, where the sweetness of our hopes gets seasoned and often ruined by sour blood set loose by life's thorns.

Bausch remains among the most underread of our contemporary masters, and perhaps for having the most ironic of flaws, the one some critics found in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day": perfection. A Zen saying advises, "The one who is good at shooting does not hit the center of the target." Bausch hits it again and again. His target, most often, is individual happiness within a context of family love -- and all the tragic bypaths that divert us from reaching it.

Few of the 42 pieces in "The Stories of Richard Bausch" feel like conventional stories in the beginning-middle-end sense. Rather, they offer the reader crucial minutes with a finger on the pulse of someone's life.

Bausch's empathy for those lives covers a full gamut of people, ages, and relationships: female protagonists in "Self Knowledge," "The Fireman's Wife," and "The Brace"; adolescent boys in "Glass Meadow," "Ancient History," and "The Last Day of Summer"; middle-aged men in "Fatality," "High-Heeled Shoe," and "Unjust"; old men in "Wise Men at Their End," "Evening," and "Letter to the Lady of the House."

Not every piece works. "Valor," "Equity," and "Accuracy" prove less engaging than the rest, and short-shorts like "Self Knowledge" and "1951" afford Bausch insufficient room to tap his chief strengths.

Yet many deserve inclusion among the best American stories of the past 20 years, and some have found that inclusion. "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr," in which a 24-year-old drifter picks up a 19-year-old woman who's left sanity behind and brought a gun in its place, and "Police Dreams," where the wife of a solicitous man grows miserable on achieving happily ever after, were chosen for the year's best story anthologies in 1988.

This collection quivers with ironies. For one, while his view of events is distinctly contemporary, Bausch sifts character with a sensitivity to nuance that feels oddly Victorian. In our era of overcharged nerves and blown emotional fuses, Bausch observes with subtle attention and respect the human sensibilities that give life its texture and richness.

In "The Last Day of Summer," a 16-year-old and his father attend a baseball game where, even as the boy longs to see his father as his model of manhood, the anticipated perfect afternoon is ruined, and the father diminished, by a belligerent drunk. "What Feels Like the World" presents a painful duality to a 61-year-old man raising his granddaughter in the wake of his divorced daughter's death, as the unexpectant nurturer feels both the meaning the girl gives his life and the cruel pressures life puts on her.

The masterful "High-Heeled Shoe" encases within today's talk-show clichs a timeless foundation of myth. This perfectly observed account of a husband who's just ended a midlife-crisis affair not only limns the range of guilt he feels and the distance it forces him from his loving wife but describes how we may have an affair not at all because of any virtues of the other person but because, like Narcissus, we've been captivated by the reflection of ourselves we see in his or her eyes.

Many characters see greener grass on the other side of the fence, unaware that their neighbor feels cursed by weeds. A 19-year-old works as a painter with his alcoholic father in "Luck" while their relationship is envied by a rich man whose bond with his own son is poor, but who doesn't see the flaws in the relationship he envies.

Bausch experiments and takes risks and makes them work. "Old West" provides an ingenious retelling of "Shane"; its narrator feels like Brandon de Wilde's character grown up. As Shane returns, a bounty hunter in quest, he's seen now with adult eyes that revise their childhood vision and muse on the lies we tell ourselves to add color and moral texture to our lives. The epistolary "Letter to the Lady of the House" is a poignant meditation, written by a man on the eve of his 70th birthday to his wife of half a century, which reflects the course by which early marital hope and warmth can erode to suffocation, even rancor. His letter is written with a pained compassion, as he insists he finds their difficult marriage worth it for its moments of "loveliness." Throughout, Bausch treads the edge of sentimentality but never slips.

Few writers so closely observe the strands of emotion braided around each human line of connection to another person, how they fray, break, or, when we're lucky, hold fast.

Andy Solomon teaches literature at the University of Tampa.

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