Richard Bausch's new novel, Peace, is very short, coming in at only one hundred and seventy-eight pages. Its familiar territory is World War II, seen from the perspective of a young American soldier whose strongest memory of home is his father's admonition to 'do your duty'. Robert Marson, the protagonist, suffers from a blistered foot and worries about infection while his comrades-in-arms Asch and Joyner – a Jew and a Jew-hater, respectively – bicker and carry on. The three men have been charged with a surveillance mission, sent to spy on the Italians and Germans for the American military. Bausch, his writing reminiscent of Hemingway in tone, topic and style, boils the essence of making an ethical choice under great pressure until all that remains is the rarefied realization that all men are human, and all men, at some stage in their lives, must choose.
Corporal Marson was, in an earlier life that to him seems so far away and long ago, a baseball pitcher. He was good, playing at a semi-pro level with the tantalizing hint of pro ball not far away. At twenty-six, he is a few years older than Joyner, Asch and the others, who 'astonished him that most of them felt that they could not die.' During their mission, they meet an Italian farmer with a cart of wet straw – and hidden inside is a Kraut officer and his whore. The officer kills two of the men and Marson leaps into action, killing him. The whore is calmly – routinely – dispatched by the commanding Sergeant, an event which leaves them all standing silent, not looking at one another and listening to the rain. An act of war, or murder? A necessary death, or an unnecessary theft of life? The difference seems a fine one to Marson, who agonizes over the deaths for the remainder of the book.
Soon Joyner, Asch and Marson split from the others and continue their mission alone. The three men quickly meet another Italian, 'A crooked shape in brown, a hooded man with dark thin hands...Under the hood was only the suggestion of a gaunt face in shadow.' They pressure the man into acting as a guide, both to help them locate the enemy and to find a way back to their camp. Later they spend time with a young Italian boy who provides them with stolen bottles of fine wine for a small fee, and later still Marson kills a sniper who hunts them up and down a snowy mountain.
But this is the gravy of the novel and not the meat. Bausch's prose provides the strongest part of the meal, heavy on detail without every weighing the text down. Perhaps thanks to his strong pedigree in short story writing – which includes, among others, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction – Bausch's technical style is clear and descriptive while remaining concise. He is not an author to outstay his welcome with flowery prose or needless exposition. The interaction of the three American soldiers relies not on stereotype or cliché – though Asch and Joyner are certainly, in their broad strokes, clichéd characters – but rather on the careful building, over the almost two hundred pages, of a three-way relationship that is above all true to itself. These men are not shown in a sentimental light, nor are they easily pinned down to a specific emotion or quality. They act very much the way you would expect three young men to behave in such harrowing times, with Bausch keeping them consistent with the precise picture he has created.
Robert Marson is something of a thinker and a leader, with the strong sense that he commands the trio not only due to his superior rank but because he is the best man among them. His doubt over the death of the Kraut officer and his whore is an example of the perpetual struggle ordinary men and women must face when they go off to war. What is a just action and what is not? Why does the theater of war change the nature of morality? Is this change legitimate or not? How can I return home the same as I once was? One character informs the group that, around the world, there have been only seventeen years of peace between 1600 and 1860. Given that the world is at war more than it is not, these questions become nothing short of eternal, constantly asked by young men and women as they commit, observe, and aid these horrible actions.
The climax of the novel comes when the soldiers return to their base. Marson's moral quandary has not been resolved to his satisfaction when suddenly he is forced to remove his stance from the mental to the physical. In a tense scene, Marson plays out the nuances of his emotional struggle in rapid detail, his actions finally culminating in a series of beautiful paragraphs where he holds his mouth to the sky to catch the rain. His mind settled – for good or ill I shall leave to the reader – he returns to war. Bausch accurately finishes the novel without finishing the war, implying that these moral choices are ones we can never fully resolve. Marson will again be tested, and though he knows his answer today, he may not know it tomorrow. War changes a man, but it also helps to clarify him, acting as a catalyst in the transformation from doubtful to decided, from weak to strong.
Peace could be read over a quiet evening. The impact of it, however, should stay for much longer. The questions he has posed in Peace are questions that need to be answered by each generation of young men and women and, when answered, need to be examined and studied in case we have made the wrong decision. Like any moral question, the importance lies not only in the answering but also the thinking, the weighing of options, and the understanding of the ramifications of choice. 'Do your duty', Marson's father tells him as he leaves for the war. Very well – but what is our duty? It's a question that Bausch, through Marson, has attempted to stir within us, to force us to examine and, hopefully, answer.