on Peace, a novel by Richard Bausch (Knopf)

My father served in the Army Air Force as a B-17 ball-turret gunner, flying out of the airbase at Foggia, Italy, 50 miles northeast of Naples. The city had been taken by the Allies after the landing at Salerno in September 1943. There were 8,000 Allied casualties on the beach. He tells this story. The Germans were getting too much information about operations at Foggia, presumably from the locals. German propaganda radio would broadcast American plans to sap confidence. So a pit was dug on the airbase and several Italians were led into it. Many others from town were arrested, told their numbers were next, and made to watch GIs fire into the pit. They heard the screaming. The names of those leaking information to the Germans were quickly divulged. However, the GIs actually hadn’t shot anyone. They’d fired into the ground.

Unknown.jpegRichard Bausch’s novel Peace takes place as the Germans retreat from Naples toward Monte Cassino to establish a new line of defense. A platoon patrol of twelve men, led by Sergeant Glick, splits off from a tank battalion. They had survived the Salerno landing. Two men are shot by a German officer after he and an Italian woman, hidden under straw in a cart, are surprised by the platoon. Corporal Robert Marson shoots the German. Sergeant Glick shoots the woman:

“ ‘She was with him. She’d’ve shot us all if she could,’ Glick said. No one answered him. Marson had shot the Kraut, and he was having trouble with that, and here were the woman’s legs stuck out of the grass next to the road. The curve of the calves was that of a young woman. ‘This is all one thing,’ Glick said, loud. It was as if he were talking to the earth and sky. The others knew he meant that the woman had been a reaction, two men killed like that – shot, both of them, through the heart – completely unready for it, though Glick had repeatedly told them and they all knew that they should be ready, every second, for just this.”

This opening episode contains the elements of everything to follow: the rain falling, the night, fear of snipers, reactions to danger and death, and the struggle to find and act on some moral bearings during war.

BauschB.jpgA scouting patrol of three American soldiers is ordered to climb a hill to track the German retreat. Marson leads Asch and Joyner up into the snow. Glick has also impressed a 77-year old Italian man into service as a guide – Angelo, in rope shoes, who takes the men up the steep, slippery incline. The action of Peace takes place on this one night. There are glances back to Palermo, where the troops had prepared for the mainland invasion; also, the day Marson left his family and wife is recalled. But the present moment takes the weight. Asch is a Jew. Joyner has a compulsion to scratch an itch on his arm. Marson develops a fiery blister on his heel. Joyner and Asch taunt each other.

This story is told with startling subtlety. The characters are seemingly unexceptional, their thoughts and reactions predictable, their speech ordinary. Peace is a lesson taught by Bausch, perhaps known primarily as master short story writer, about compression. By drawing a close circle around his materials, Bausch lets the reader feel both confined by circumstance and unmoored by the effects of the unrelenting cold, wetness, pain, boredom, abject fear, and spookiness of this almost otherworldly scene. Asch keeps bringing up the murder of the Italian “whore.” Will they report Glick’s action when they return?

“ ‘I can’t get the image of her legs out of my head.’ Marson almost turned to Asch to say he had the same unwanted picture in his own mind. But the knowledge of it frightened him. He had again the obliterating sense that everything of his memory, everything of his knowledge and his dreams and the hopes and aspirations of his lived life, was in a kind of gray, lifeless suspension. Even the wish to be generous and to seek the good opinion of others. It was all elsewhere.”

BauschC.jpegThe absence of rooted identity and moral reference points establishes itself quickly. Marson’s father had told him to do his duty, and the son is determined to complete his mission, even with everything he knows about life in “lifeless suspension.” But Marson’s mind is also alert. Depending on the light and the circumstance at hand, the inexpressive face of Angelo may suggest many different attributes and motives. Marson monitors Angelo’s appearance as a gauge of danger: “Something about him appeared faintly arrogant now, as if he could not be bothered to fear or respect these armed boys he was with in their trouble.” This may be all Bausch offers as Marson registers something sinister or heart-rending in Angelo. There are no analyses, only impressions, changes of light (from the snowfields, from clouds passing over the moon, from the storm), and then, what emerges from the woods, the sounds, the images.

The moral dimension of Peace gets the final word, but it is experiential, not didactic. Its complexities continue after the last sentence, into the news on CNN and Fox (where they disappear). The shock of Peace, its action and the brutality it confronts, also has a blunt economy. It is the amazing art of this perfect novel that every element of the story is so plainly and forcefully expressed – while the combined emotional and intellectual force is so broadly and deeply felt.

[Published April 18, 2008. 171 pp., $19.95]