When the planes hit on September 11, 2001, I was in the F train. The conductor made a bland announcement regretting delays following “an incident.” “What incident?” I asked my neighbor. He shrugged. I arrived at my office at BusinessWeek, then at 6th Avenue and 48th Street, and watched the towers collapse on TV. My baby son was home with the sitter, my daughter at kindergarten. My husband was safe. No one I knew was hurt, miraculously. For months, I cried. I was terrified of a subway bombing. I tried to plan how we would evacuate in the event of a nuclear attack. On bicycles? With two small children? We don’t own a car. But a car would be useless. 13 years later, I can’t visit the World Trade Center site. My trauma was trivial compared those who were there or lost someone.
Yet when I hear of shootings, tornadoes, plane crashes elsewhere, I’m appalled, sorry. But not deeply affected. Not that I don’t care. I wasn’t there. I suspect most people feel similarly. Such gradations of anguish and detachment are the medium of Richard Bausch’s new novel, Before, During, After, the title of which refers to three events, the 9/11 attacks, a wedding, and a personal crime.
If writers got medals, Richard Bausch’s jacket would be brass shoulder to shoulder. He’s the author of 12 literary novels and eight volumes of short stories, the editor of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, a much-loved teacher of writing, and winner of many prestigious awards. For all his success, one of the distinguishing features of Bausch’s writing is his empathy with human failure. He doesn’t love (or ask us to love) all his characters, and even the best and brightest have cringe-inducing moments. But he never sneers at them. He takes them all, including the villains, seriously and asks the reader to do so, as well. This makes it hard to dismiss their misdeeds as the acts of outliers. We have to ask ourselves would I do that? Have I?
Though Bausch is often considered a Southern writer—he lived and taught in Memphis for seven years, the Washington, D.C. area, where he grew up, with its divided regional loyalties and protean sense of identity, is frequently the setting or a reference point for characters in his books. It’s the hometown of Robert Marson, the soldier and protagonist in Peace; the starting point for Say Hello to the Cannibals; and the setting for In the Night Season. Washington is also where Before, During, After opens. The protagonists, Michael Faulk, a 48-year-old divorced Anglican priest who has lost his vocation, and Natasha Barrett, 32, a senator’s jaded aide, meet and fall in love at a political soirée. After a brief Washington courtship of sightseeing—even Civil War battle sites are romantic with the belove—they decide to marry and start life afresh together in Memphis, their mutual home town.
Washington is a beautiful green city, full of parks and vistas and handsome buildings, a lovely place to live (my home town). Dissed as “Inside the Beltway,” a city of transients, bureaucrats, and opportunists, yet it’s where Americans make the collective decisions that define us as a nation—whether we take responsibility for them or not. Washington ties symbolically with the other theme of this book—responsibility. Faulk, who has shed his pastoral collar but not the reflexes, feels responsible for everyone—strangers and intimates, yet resents neediness. The apparently self-sufficient Natasha, he would walk through fire for. For Natasha, responsibility is more mechanical—doing a good job, putting a smiling face on pain. Orphaned as a child and brought up by her grandmother, she seems to have what psychologists call attachment issues—difficulty attaching and preferring superficial relationships. Her best friend, Constance, is a wealthy older woman, an alcoholic, whose main appeal seems to be that she likes Natasha’s company. Her other friend, Marsha, also has a nasty streak. Natasha’s last beau was married—a bad romance. Michael offers her the deep, romantic love she says she craves, but her capacity to accept it seems stunted. She wants to keep the engagement secret, the wedding minimal. And before the marriage—she does something irresponsible—compromising herself, to use an old-fashioned term, with disastrous consequences. The story turns on this moment.
Leaving Washington, Natasha detours to Jamaica for a long-planned vacation with Constance, while Faulk goes to New York to attend a friend’s wedding in lower Manhattan and then set up housekeeping in Memphis. The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks occur. Natasha and Constance are stranded when U.S. air traffic is halted. Faulk, who had planned to breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the World Trade Center’s top floor (but was elsewhere), makes his way by train to D.C. and then Memphis. Neither can communicate because of the overloaded telecom circuits. Natasha doesn’t know whether Faulk is alive or not. This brings us to the “During” part of the book—which starts after the terrorist attacks.
The people in the hotel are shaken, but except Natasha and a woman whose family lives in Queens, not personally affected. What they do is talk and drink and cry and drink some more and act badly. Constance takes up with a married alcoholic under his wife’s nose.
A young man named Nicholas Duego gloms onto Natasha. He claims to be a Cuban from Orlando, angry that his dancer wife has left him for a woman. He appears out of nowhere and intuits that the pilot force was infiltrated. Initially I wondered if he would prove to be associated with the hijackers—using brown skin and an accent to blend in as Hispanic. But Bausch is too subtle a writer for tidy thriller plotting. He simply lets the creepy uncertainty about him float unresolved. At night, Natasha goes to the beach to calm herself, and Duego follows her. She asks him to leave, then gets high with him. He asks to touch her face. She accepts that, then a kiss. She tells herself: “I am not the type…What type. Why is it a type? The words went through her mind. You are, she thought. You are, now. You were, then. What were you?” She tells him to leave, but accepts his caresses. He presses her for sex, she pushes him off. She falls asleep on the beach. He returns and attacks her brutally. Afterward, she keeps running into him (even on the plane home), and he repeatedly insists he hasn’t done anything wrong, that they could have had a nice thing. “I do not take what has not been given.” He leaves her a rambling note ending: “Podría haber amado.” I could have loved you.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t report the rape. Who would listen to her little problem at a time like that? Plus she would have a very difficult time convincing the police that she’s a victim of “legitimate rape”—to use the infamous phrase. (When she works up the courage two months later, a sympathetic policewoman tells her the same will go for a jury, and she decides not to pursue it.) More to the point, what will Faulk say? (By this time we know he’s alive.) “I understand, honey, that you needed to go out at night, on the beach, get high and make out with some strange guy.”
Constance, who saw them kissing—but not the rape, thinks not.
“It was serious tonguing. I’m not naïve.”
“I—yes, I kissed him. I kissed him. I felt sorry for him. But that was the end of it.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
She turned to go back inside. “You can believe whatever the fuck you want to believe. Or whatever your ideas about me tell you to believe. This conversation is over.”
And so is the friendship, for all practical purposes. Why doesn’t Natasha tell her the truth, at least? Perhaps because Constance is a lousy friend—even if she did pay for Natasha’s trip. Could the mere possibility of tragedy unhinge her that much? Does she not think she deserves Faulk? Does she lack empathy for him? We don’t doubt Bausch’s authorial choice here. Natasha’s self-sabotage is believable. She’s damaged. But we’re angry at her, and that’s what makes the book interesting.
Having set up a fairy tale romance, Bausch continues to ruin it. She goes home. He knows immediately that something is wrong. She never feels sexy anymore. She’s evasive. For a while, 9/11 trauma is decent cover. (Remember when 9/11 justified maxing out your credit cards? Hey, W. said shop.) Faulk tries to be the sensitive husband, but he can’t lose the feeling that she’s hiding an infidelity and he’s the only one who doesn’t know. He corners Constance, who only makes things worse with her prevarications.
So, he stays up nights drinking and writing the case for and against the marriage following the format and language of The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Format aside, these scenes are reminiscent of the one in The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer sits up all night piecing together the perfidy of her so-called friend, Madame Merle and her odious husband, Gilbert Osmond.
Article 1. Whether, putting aside her simple kindness, any evidence exists of my wife’s former passion for me?
We proceed to the First Article: It seems that, putting aside her simple kindness, we have no evidence of her former passion for me.
…in the country as a whole, people seem to be making their way along their lives without noticeable effects on their mood and bearing…
…What really amounts to only a few hours of fearing she had lost me does not seem at all sufficient as a cause of such a long period of lingering aftershock.
Faulk concludes she met her old lover for a last fling. He tries to tell her he forgives her, loses it, and the truth spills out in the worst possible way.
There are many ways to look at this book. Bausch is a master of naturalistic narrative. In his hands, the creaky stage equipment of fiction—time leaps, point of view changes, background—does its work almost imperceptibly. There is its diptych structure. Two points of view, two crimes, simultaneous events in two places, two islands (Jamaica and Manhattan).
Like some of the best books about love—including Anna Karenina and The Portrait of a Lady—it’s romantic. Seriously, who is not rooting for this smart, attractive, yet prematurely disappointed pair to find love? Their age difference makes it sexier, and there are nice, passionate sex scenes. And I do like the Washington sightseeing.
It’s also a psychological study. The more I thought about Natasha’s behavior, the more I wondered whether (like Anna Karenina or Isabel Archer) she has the capacity to be happy. Bausch ends the story in mid-sentence, implying a new chapter in her life and Faulk’s. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that Natasha’s failure to acknowledge her responsibility to Faulk—not the rape, of course—but getting high with Duego and succumbing so easily to his creepy advances—has snuffed the early joy of marriage, the base that keeps you going when the going gets rough. They’re barely married, and already into the hard, messy part, having to forgive. It’s not a good sign.
Crisis of faith is another recurring theme in Bausch’s work. Faulk joined the clergy more as an act of loyalty to his mother over his drunken, obnoxious, aggressively anti-religious father than vocation. (The father does have a great line about his late wife’s faith, though: “Her God was more of a—a celestial cop, I’d say. When he wasn’t an invisible concierge.”) Far from bolstering his spirit, the ministry steadily sapped the joy—even the desire for joy—from his life, leading to the end of his first marriage. One gets the sense that in leaving the ministry and marrying Natasha, he’s gotten right with himself for the first time, which makes his disappointment so poignant.
One of the most important, yet unexamined aspects of the book is the role of alcohol. The characters all drink heavily all the time, including Faulk and Natasha. But they don’t seem to notice themselves doing so. The 9/11 attacks are an excuse to drink even more. Faulk and Natasha have intact personalities—in the sense of being presentable. Constance and Faulk’s father, on the other hand—as well as a good number of lesser characters—have the alcoholic’s social blindness. Bausch’s perspective on the rape is clear. (He’s against it.) But the neutral way he presents the drinking implies—to this reader, anyway—that an alcoholic haze is just part of the scenery for many Americans. That is perhaps the real tragedy—or one of them—underlying this story.
Julia Lichtblau is the Book Review Editor for The Common.