Violence haunts our streets and fills our movie theaters. We go out of our way to avoid it and go out of our way to watch it. Yet the pervasive effects of this national pastime are rarely examined by journalists, scientists, and others in charge of examining things, leaving the task to the novelists. Violence, the new novel by Richard Bausch, author of Mrs. Field’s Daughter and The Fireman’s Wife and Other Stories, examines the effects of violence — and the effects of the effects — thoroughly. It’s a somber, slightly flawed, suspenseful, and intelligent book that turns on an attempted robbery of a convenience store outside Chicago. The accompanying mayhem is the sort you see every night on the news, but your eyewitness news team doesn’t give you the subtle consequences of the mayhem, nor does it report on its own distortion of the violent event, and Bausch does.
A few days after Christmas a young married couple, Charles and Carol Connally, are driving from Virginia to Chicago for a visit with his mother. Carol is pregnant and Charles is obscurely on edge. Having just finished a stint in the Air Force, he is attending college and seems worried about their lack of money and how the arrival of the baby will aggravate it, perhaps forcing him out of school and into a dead-end job. But there is clearly something deeper at stake that makes the trip to his mother’s apartment urgent and unsettling.
Charles’ portentous simmering soon has his wife near tears, and when he seems to suggest, while they are stalled in snowbound traffic, that she consider an abortion, she walks out of the car into the desolate Illinois landscape of industrial decline that forms the background to most of the novel. Later, half-reconciled and back in their squalid motel room, they quarrel again, and at 2 a.m. Charles stalks off and wanders into a nearby convenience store just ahead of two gun-wielding thugs.
Charles is craven and passive throughout the ensuing ordeal, but at one point he seems to shield the Asian woman who runs the store, and after the blood is spilled and the TV news crews have arrived, her broken-English account makes him look like a hero in the tear-jerking newscasts. In response he perversely works up a mounting rage, directed equally at the pestering journalists, his wife, and his mother, and what his rage seems to be moving toward is some irrational mayhem of his own. We are made aware that the violence isn’t confined to the convenience store robbery and its warped TV reflection; it runs like a steel thread through the lives of Charles, his mother, his dead father, and Carol, and perhaps through the life of the entire country as well: ”The whole country loved murder…and none of it was like the real thing — the sheer inanimate weight of the dead, the lightless stare, and blood.”
Toward the end the subtle tone Bausch has established is overtaken by a will to spell things out, threatening to turn a fine psychological novel into a psychological textbook novel. The limited modulations of Charles’ character — angry to very angry and back again — before his final chastened deliverance present a similar problem. But the prose is good and the theme is powerful. Bausch makes us see the violence that elsewhere transfixes us to the point of blindness. B+