Say your goal is to locate a short story writer in relation to his peers. Start by imagining a map of a valley, with Mount Munro at one end and Mount Carver at the other. Mount Munro, after Alice, is the summit of capacious stories that range widely across time and space, containing fully laid out lives. Inner worlds are slowly peeled back and the reader is led, subtly and inexorably, to a shiver of revelation. At the other extreme, Raymond Carver's brief stories seem found rather than made. The insights come all at once and hit you so fast you feel defenseless, then dazed. The impact lingers long after you've put down the story.
The Stories of Richard Bausch lie in the Carver end of the valley, somewhere fairly high up on the flanks of Mount Carver. The guy can write, and, like Carver, he can crack open whole worlds in a few pages. Each story read separately is a gem. Read them in a batch, though, and you may feel that you're stuck in the same bleak place. Bausch writes mostly about men whose lives are spinning out of control. These men seem to lack the something - courage, self-awareness, time, money or energy - they need to step off the entropy express. Individually, the lives are poignant; collectively they're depressing.
Which isn't to say there aren't small masterpieces here. Like Valor, about a drunk who saves a busload of kids only to come home and find his wife is leaving him. Or Glass Meadow, a marvelous depiction of what it feels like to be a twelve year old boy, wrapped in a story that's funny and sad and tender and true. Or The Person I Have Mostly Become, about the futility of good intentions, one of the saddest stories you'll ever read. In addition to men, Bausch crafts the emotional worlds of young boys, perhaps an underserved population in current fiction, with a jeweler's precision.
What gives these stories their power is, paradoxically, what is also unsatisfying about them: the absence of the implied author. The implied author is the shaping force that sits between the people on the page and the actual person who writes the story. The implied author presents a stance toward the work, which helps the reader to shape their own response. The implied author Alice Munro says to us, "We're going to look at some painful things, but we're going to go about it with dignity and fortitude, and no matter how sad or trapped these people are, neither we nor they will miss the grace notes or succumb to despair." The implied Raymond Carver is a Bogart-like figure, who says, "This is what life is like, my friend, funny and sad all at once, and we have no choice but to stay on stage and play out our part. Let's lift a glass for all the acts of fecklessness and false bravado, toast those ineffectual fists raised against fate."
I can't find the implied Richard Bausch, and I can't figure out how he feels about all this despair he's serving up. He seems to be saying, "Here's a bowl of pain soup. I'll step aside and let you eat it. When you're done with this one, I'll serve you another."
How you respond to this collection depends upon how many bowls of pain soup you can stand to eat in one sitting.