People do what Ben Jameson, the protagonist of Robert Bausch’s new novel, did as a young professional all the time. They graduate from college and then fall into an “emergency job” to save money for bigger things but find said gig to be more taxing than they’d imagined. They move on, basically never to think of that job again. For Ben, however, the two years he spent teaching English in 1985 changed his world forever, leaving him touched and haunted by three students who suffered various forms of abuse by relatives.
Ben’s first-person narration takes place more than 20 years later, so “In the Fall They Come Back” reads like an adult version of his high school students’ mandated journal entries. Which is to say that it’s mostly a personally reflective account, but occasionally he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader. This is mainly done to explain his often-delusional justifications about Leslie Warren, an indisputably beautiful student with a sex-and-drugs reputation.
“I know the way I’m talking about her only furthers the notion that I was in love with her, but in truth, I wasn’t. Or at least, I wasn’t in love with her in the way you might be thinking. She was only 17 when I first saw her and it was hard not to discount all the rumors about everybody’s nightmare.”
With Leslie’s character, the Georgia-born author has once again demonstrated a knack for penning novels that get published around the time real-life controversies related to his subject matter reach full boil. It happened with “The Legend of Jesse Smoke,” which shed light on issues in the NFL and came out amid stories about players boycotting the national anthem, the ongoing concussion crisis and new instances of domestic violence among its ranks. And it’s happening now, with “In the Fall” being released alongside near-daily sexual assault accusations against powerful celebrities.
The story is anything but a cut-and-dried “predator versus victim” narrative, but it’s nevertheless largely about how a man in a position of influence can carelessly wield that power to irrevocably cause damage to another, unintentionally or not. Thinking back on his time as a teacher and the sense of power he felt seeing students look at him with such awe, Ben claims he was never “particularly enthralled by it.” But he wonders, “I mean if you don’t really know, if you can’t really know that you’re exerting any sort of influence, how can you be accused of abusing it?”
Ben, 25, finds a Godlike mentor in an older “white-haired, tall and craggy” teacher conspicuously named Francis Bible. Professor Bible gives Ben advice when his student George Meeker shows up with a nasty bruise on his neck. Later, Bible cleverly finagles Ben out of a dicey situation when George’s imposing father shows up at the school. The young teacher feels compelled to help his students and is peeved when his fiancée Annie says he has a “Christ complex” and needs to control everything “a little bit more than the next person.”
Ben does find some success in helping George, but upon reflection from the vantage point of middle age, the twice-divorced lawyer realizes that outcome could have ultimately changed his path for the worse.
“If I had not been drawn so completely into George’s predicament, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so deeply involved in the events of that second year — the last year, as it turned out.” The author deftly builds anxious anticipation with occasional lines alluding to “what eventually happened.”
The third damaged standout student Ben involves himself with is Suzanne Rule. Suzanne first reveals herself as a shadowy figure in a doorway, with “stringy hair that hung in front of her like a bright red waterfall.” Ben learns she’s a reclusive mute who never takes her eyes off the floor. He decides to start opening his classes every day by reading a poem, without any explanation. He considers it a breakthrough when Suzanne starts leaving him original poetry on his desk. He teaches on a whim and occasionally gets chastised for showing gruesome Holocaust documentaries or assigning essays on the existence of God, lesson plans be damned. When Professor Bible is forced to quit teaching, Ben seems to lose his compass. He finds himself more engrossed in Leslie’s problems, less engrossed in his future wife Annie.
Bausch tends to publish works of fiction with historical, psychological or speculative premises. His new book is based on a true story and written so fully that the reader feels certain Glenn Acres is a real private school in Virginia; certain that Ben truly did wipe horsey sauce off Annie’s mouth in an Arby’s, apologize to headmistress Mrs. Creighton for letting her down and have a fumbling moment with fellow teacher Doreen in a car; certain that there’s an old journal somewhere with the scrawled sentence: “Those stick figures in the movies, those dead people getting piled into mounds of white skin and bone made me sick to my stomach.”
The book’s title refers to what Professor Bible used to say about his students. After his tenure ends, he remarks to Ben, “I never thought very much about what it would feel like to know that one fall I wouldn’t come back.” Bausch has crafted the kind of story that one visualizes in black and white and hears with a classical piano melody in the background; it is poignant and familiar and comfortably sorrowful.
“In the Fall They Come Back”
By Robert Bausch
416 pages, $30.