Robert Bausch is an award-winning writer who’s written and traditionally published seven books. His newest novel, In the Fall They Come Back, is as good as the best novels I’ve reviewed or just read in quite a while, and that includes a couple of major prize winners.
Photo by Tim Bausch
Based on a true story, In the Fall They Come Back is Ben Jameson’s narrative, a sort of fictive memoir, of his time teaching at Glenn Acres, a small private prep school in Virginia. It’s a quiet story about a teacher’s relationship with his students. There’s Leslie, beautiful and dangerous, a femme fatale everyone warns Ben about; Suzanne, who is mysteriously damaged and mute; and George, who’s physically beaten at home and bullied by the kids at school. Ben fights with and placates abusive parents, bucks the school system, and soon faces sexual misconduct charges.
Ben tells his story with the benefit that a few years of contemplation and wisdom provide. He’s in law school as he recounts those two years of not just teaching, but “about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough” about his disparate and desperate teenage students. It’s his benevolence for his students that undoes Ben and ultimately destroys one of the three students he attempts to save. Bausch does a masterful job as storyteller seamlessly moving from the mid- to late-1980s, in this wise and profoundly heartrending novel.
It’s 1985 when Ben, who’s recently finished graduate school, takes a job teaching English at Glenn Acres. He has no intention of being a professional teacher; instead he’s taken the job with the idea of eventually going to law school, but he’s happy to get the job. Ben has his 120-130 students write business letters, book reports, and personal narratives. Mrs. Creighton, the head mistress, also requires that Ben’s students keep daily journals and fold over the pages that no one will read. The catch: Ben must read everything on the folded pages. To satisfy Mrs. Creighton, Ben agrees to tell the white lie to his students. For a while, he goes through the motions of being a decent teacher. But soon, he aspires to be better than the sort of mediocre teacher he encountered when he was in school and considers making teaching his life-long work. He adopts a mentor, Professor Bible, but eventually, Ben goes far outside the bounds of Bible’s advice. He finds himself becoming more involved in the lives of his students and near assaulted by an angry parent. His girlfriend Annie says he has a “Christ Complex”: trying to fix everything and solve the problems of his students.
Bausch depicts Ben not only as wonderful but flawed teacher, but as an amazing human being. Bausch’s novel is steeped in realism—you won’t find any post-modernist techniques here, only subtle artistry from a brilliant writer who so cares about his characters that he depicts them, especially the students, succinctly, vividly and often poetically. Leslie is not just beautiful: Bausch writes about “her fine hair almost the color of a daisy’s eye, swaying in the fall breezes.” Suzanne is not just plain-looking and shy, but has “stringy hair that hung in front of her like a bright red waterfall, and she never took her eyes off the floor in front of her.” Bausch is a marvelous artist and storyteller as proven in his first novel On the Way Home (1982), and again in A Hole in the Earth (2000) and Out of Season (2005). In the Fall They Come Back, an indie-published book, is destined to be considered among his best work.
This is a longer version of my August 28 review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.