The year is 1944, and the setting is Italy. A group of American G.I.'s are on a reconnaissance mission near Cassino — their mission: to learn the whereabouts of the German army, which is retreating north.
One day, the battalion meets up with a farmer's cart pulled by a donkey, led by two boys, and loaded with straw. The boys are ordered away, and a sergeant named John Glick instructs his men to overturn the cart. Out fall a German officer and a woman. The German uses his Luger to shoot two of the Americans, then Corporal Robert Marson kills the "Kraut." Sergeant Glick turns his carbine on the woman, who is shouting in German, and he fires a bullet into her head. End of story? No, start of story in Richard Bausch's new novel, Peace (Knopf).
But peace — inner peace — is not what Marson and two of his men — Saul Asch and Benny Joyner — find as they climb a nearby hill in search of German presence in the area. Down below, they'd witnessed the killing of an unarmed woman. Do they report it as murder within their own ranks? Or do they just keep their mouths shut and do their duty: reach that hilltop and return with a report?
Days of rain turn to a nighttime of sleet, then snow as the three men ascend in "deep stillness" and "black quiet." An old man named Angelo is serving as guide over the steep terrain, but Marson isn't sure Angelo's to be trusted. Marson isn't so sure about a lot of things. That German officer is the first enemy soldier Marson's shot dead up close. Nausea plagues him; emptiness haunts him. Even his prayers ring hollow, but he says them, sincerely, in the rote way a Catholic can. At 26, Marson, at least, is worldly wise.
Asch? He's a 23-year-old Jew from Boston still haunted by the sight of an American tank (and its occupants) on fire in North Africa. One thing he's sure of: his and the entire unit's guilt in the killing of that German woman if Glick's conduct goes unreported.
And Joyner? He's a walking string of obscenities — against Asch, against the war, against the world in general, you name it, in Joyner's words, "fuck it" — but he's tormented by an itch that is, in fact, a case of nerves ready to snap. He's a Michigan farm boy of 19.
This one tense night, all three men — Marson, Asch, and Joyner — struggle on and argue, numbed by the wet and cold, uncertain of what they'll find and more uncertain of their safety. Are they to take Angelo at his word? Are they to avoid a possible attack? And are they to survive their return downhill — one of the men the target of a sniper, another turned sniper himself? And once returned to the battalion, what's Marson to do with Angelo's fate? At the close of Peace, it's in his hands.
The story is in good hands. This is a short novel, and Bausch writes with the immediacy required — whether he's describing the raw weather and difficult terrain of Italy or the harsh terms and ugly realities of life in wartime. But those are outward signs. Bausch charts Marson's reflections with comparable economy and narrative force.
Peace then: yet another lesson in storytelling from this nationally recognized writer, holder of the Moss Chair of Excellence in creative writing at the University of Memphis.
Richard Bausch will be signing and reading from Peace at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, May 15th, from 5 to 7 p.m. The reading begins at 6 p.m. For more information, call the store at 278-7484.