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 unpredictable protagonists.

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.