In The Night Season by Richard Bausch
HarperCollins June 1998 326 pp. 24.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Richard Bausch's In the Night Season is about
grief, loss, and hope. But more than anything else, it
chronicles the hidden reserves of the human will, the
capacity to stare down the prospect of imminent death with a
few well-chosen Anglo-Saxonisms.
The scene is rural Virginia, in and around the
ominously named Darkness Falls. Edward Bishop is a lonely,
fifty-six-year-old Black Vietnam vet who has settled into
solitary middle age, repairing televisions and VCRs. In his
mail one day he receives a crude and hateful missive from
the Virginia Front, a local white supremacist organization
that takes exception to his caring for eleven-year-old
Jason, a neighbor. Jason is the son of Nora Michaelson, a
white widow whose husband, deeply in debt from a failed
business, died in an automobile accident.
Nora makes ends meet by counseling at a local Catholic
school. Although qualified, she no longer teaches.
"Something about the life had exhausted
her and made her feel obscurely angry a lot of the time. …
so many of the students she encountered had already been
ruined by other teachers, or by the culture they lived in,
which seemed to value everything else over knowledge, and
these students-ignorant, oddly cynical about life, often
uncivil, and incredibly complacent about their
ignorance-these students were so self-satisfied and
aggressively obtuse that unvaryingly they made her feel a
black desire to lash out, a smoldering rage."
Her rage serves her well as events unfold. Although
Bishop takes his fears to Chief Investigator Shaw of the
police, no one is particularly concerned about the home
grown racists until a murder occurs. At first, the police
throw all their resources toward tracking down the Virginia
Front membership, who seem to be responsible for the crime.
Then, in separate incidents, Nora and her son Jason are
kidnapped by a band of brutal thugs. Although the police
remain in the dark, Nora and Jason learn that the murder was
obscurely connected to Nora's late husband.
The killers are convinced that Nora or Jason has
information that will lead them to a cache of
extraordinarily valuable merchandise. Neither she nor her
son knows anything about the merchandise, or its relation to
her dead husband, but the crooks don't believe them. For the
rest of the novel we alternate between the story of the
kidnappers brutalizing Nora and Jason, and of policeman Shaw
trying to locate members of the Virginia Front.
Alongside the kidnapping story, we learn of Shaw's
life, and here Bausch demonstrates his artfulness, as Shaw's
personal tragedies and disappointments reflect and contrast
with those of the Michaelsons'. Deeply depressed over the
death of his own son years earlier, trying to remain on the
wagon as he realizes that his ex-wife is finding her own way
in life while he is not, Shaw barely makes it through his
days. As it slowly dawns on him that a relationship exists
between the murder and the kidnappings, Shaw realizes that a
redemption of sort is possible if he can save the life of
Nora Michaelson's young son.
Despite the ordinariness of the events chronicled in
the novel-a group of lowlife thugs, a single mother trying
to get by-Bausch's novel makes for gripping reading. The
hook is not so much the plot as the intriguing deadness of
affect in the prose style. The lives and actions of the
criminals are portrayed with a documentarian's hand, leaving
the opportunity for judgment to the reader.
Despite-or perhaps because of-its macho trappings,
In the Night Season falls into the realm of
traditional American romanticism, a vector that reaches from
Hemingway, to Dickey's Deliverance, to Stone's Dog
Soldiers, to Pinckney Benedict's flamboyant Dogs of
God. As in these novels, Season's characters inhabit the
rural wilderness, where they find that the true threat to
their well-being isn't the savagery of nature, but the
brutality of the human heart. What distinguishes Bausch's
novel from its predecessors is that the heroic protagonists
aren't rough-hewn, monosyllabic men, but a seemingly
helpless widow and her young son.
Post-Tarantino Hollywood should take note of In the
Night Season. Much in this novel is cinematic,
reminiscent of The Petrified Forest or Key Largo. Hostage
incidents, well played, allow us to identify with the
victims, and compare our own responses to those of the
In the Night Season is a finely crafted drama
that evokes the lives of characters under threat and their
courageous response to danger. Despite a somewhat sappy
ending, Bausch's novel is an captivating story with
admirable emotional resonance.