A few weeks ago, I commented on short stories in general that they often have a surprise ending, and that this is characteristic of the short story form. While this is more true than not of the traditional short story, in some short forms (such as Richard Bausch’s short story “Something Is Out There,” the title story of a 2010 collection by the same name) the seemingly truncated surprise or what is often called the “open-endedness” which has become a regular feature of novel writing these days is followed, and a prime example of that quality in fiction is evidenced in another Bausch work, his 2008 novel Peace.
There are other similarities as well between the two works, not only in the way they are put together, but in narrative voice and setting/climate of the action. The narrative voice in Peace is faintly reminiscent in its restraint of Ernest Hemingway at his best, though we fortunately escape from the sometimes chicken-playing maudlin tough guy attitude of the main characters in Hemingway’s war novels, which appears to some extent even in the war novel which I personally believe to be his best, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though the lofty grandeur of Hemingway one-liners is also missing, in its place in Peace we have what seems a more honest approach to the subject of war from the point of view of a corporal named Marson and two privates in Italy in WWII who are charged with going forward over a mountain to ascertain where the enemy is and in what number. They are guided by a possibly disloyal Italian guide, and have also to contend with a sniper somewhere in the dismal, wretched winter forest around them. In “Something Is Out There,” a Virginia family is weathering a winter snowstorm too, after their male breadwinner has been shot off the roof by a former business partner. In this fiction, the part of the “sniper” is played by the fears they suffer while waiting for a cousin to come through the storm to celebrate Christmas with them, not only because he is late, but because they keep getting calls and an unknown visitor comes, all wanting to speak to the father, who is in the hospital. The mother of the family, Paula, plays the role of the commanding presence which is analogous to the role played by Corporal Marson in Peace. Both must defend the others grouped around them, and just as the soldiers in the novel are all unashamedly afraid of dying, so the family with perhaps equal cause feels hunted by what they fear may be lurking in the winter landscape around the house in which they are gathered. Both the soldiers in the forest and the family in the snowed-in house are plagued not only by the weather, but by uncertainty and the elemental forces around them. The soldiers don’t know if they are being followed or not, and have to contend with hearing shots in the night without knowing at first who is shooting or being shot; the family in the house is waiting for their family member Christopher to arrive in his Jeep, and is speculating whether the father who was shot is involved in illegal business; both the soldiers and the family have to deal with repeated snowfalls or bad weather, and both are forced to function in the dark, the soldiers because they are out in the night forest, the family because they are in the middle of a power outage. All of these things constitute similarities between the two stories.
Probably the most structurally interesting thing about the two fictions, however, is that both are left open-ended. While not wanting to reveal the endings entirely, I can safely tell you that the soldiers go on being soldiers in the midst of conflict without playing out entirely all the different threads of plot which are provided them earlier on: Marson comes to certain realizations and resolves, but he goes on being a soldier whose first mission is to kill the enemy. The family members all do various things to make themselves feel safe, but even for Paula, the main character, there is no assurance that her solution is going to safeguard her family or the house: there is not even an absolute confirmation that they are being rational instead of merely needlessly panicky. The storm has in some sense dictated isolation, but their isolation is no assurance, since for all they know “something is out there,” the most primitive fear of humankind hidden in the “cave” of its fears. In fact, it is the open-endedness of these two fictions which helps the reader identify with the fears felt by the characters in each case, fears which bring out basic character traits that sometimes lead to an inability to get along with each other and less frequently to a genuine sort of heroism. And it is the open-endedness of real life, imitated fictionally here, which makes the two works so convincing and so capable of speaking to what we know of ourselves and others.
(I would like to reference Caroline’s blog Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for her Literature and War Readalong 2012. I was not able to get around to reading Richard Bausch in time to participate in her readalong, but her blog was the inspiration behind my getting the book Peace and reading it in the first place when I was able to, and also led to my checking out the book of Bausch’s short stories.)