Male ego bashes; AREN'T YOU HAPPY FOR ME? by Richard Bausch Macmillan pounds 8.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE opening - and title - story of this arresting collection, a daughter is telling her father on the telephone of her intention to marry somebody he and his wife have not yet met. This news is tough enough for the hapless father to take, but there is worse to come. Gradually, as the conversation unfolds, he discovers that his daughter is pregnant and that her fiance is not only older than him but has been married twice before. The developments come so thick and fast that he has no chance to drop his own bombshell - that he and his wife are separating.

It sounds bleak, and it is. But it is no means the grimmest story on offer in this first British selection from an author who has over the past two decades built a formidable reputation as a novelist and short- story writer in his native United States. Death, divorce, alcoholism and lots of marriages falling apart through causes as banal as boredom are Richard Bausch's stock in trade. But his touch is so sure and feeling for his characters so great that his chronicles of ordinary folk down on their luck cannot easily be ignored.

With their crisp, laconic style, they are firmly in the Dirty Realism school of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and the late Raymond Carver, an impression that is reinforced by Ford's contribution of a typically generous introduction. "In most ways stylistic, these are stories in the mainstream of American realism, a stream connecting Henry James to Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway to Cheever, Eudora Welty and Jean Stafford to Carver - all of them connecting back to that old Midwesterner, Chekhov," Ford writes.

This is fine company to be keeping - and you can see what he is getting at in the last jokey reference. Despite their Dirty Realist affinities, Bausch's stories are not so obviously steeped in time or place. One senses that most of the events described could have happened at almost any time in the last 40 years - or, come to that, in any place. Much as Chekhov's can.

This may mean that readers will not encounter the obvious foreignness that they may have enjoyed in the others' stories set in trailer parks and other desolate parts of the American West. But the absence of these details should only widen the appeal of work that goes much further than most contemporary writing to understanding and interpreting the battles between the sexes and the generations.

Just occasionally - as in the novella-length "Spirits" - Bausch broadens his canvas to take in additional characters and external events. But he is at his strongest when sticking to the family dynamics. Fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, sons and daughters all share the blame for the break-ups, disappointments and other upsets chronicled here. However, there is no denying that the author is particularly adept at casting inadequate males.

The theme starts with that father on the telephone to his daughter. But there are also the funny, loving father who tries to delude himself that he is giving up the booze, the fat son who so misses his father that he, in Ford's phrase, "schemes a trip around the world with his favourite girl - mom", and the unemployed builder who feels suffocated by the concern of his mother and wife.

Not, then, a collection to boost the male ego, yet definitely one for those prepared for fresh insights on those unhappy families that Tolstoy so famously found more interesting than happy ones.