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Sunday, April 11, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hard Times In Close Company

"Rebel Powers" by Richard Bausch Houghton Mifflin, $21.95

Richard Bausch - not to be confused with his writer-brother Robert Bausch - has published two story collections and six novels. Like Anne Tyler, who wrote many fine books but received no mass-market attention until "The Accidental Tourist," Bausch has so far been a writer's writer whose compelling work deserves a wider audience.

A skilled stylist with a keen ear for dialogue, his generous heart and passionate curiosity make his characters come powerfully alive. "Rebel Powers," his new novel, takes place in 1967, when 17-year-old Thomas Boudreaux faces duty in Vietnam after graduating from high school.

But even as the draft threatens his future, something worse occurs: His father, an Air Force "lifer" and Vietnam veteran, gets caught pawning a government typewriter to cover bad checks. Daniel Boudreaux's family is torn apart when he is dishonorably discharged and sentenced to two years' hard labor at Wyoming's Wilson Creek Federal Penitentiary.

Bausch begins almost as the arrest occurs, engaging a reader's interest and sympathy quickly. Another astute move marks the mature writer's touch: The tale is a flashback from 1992, when Tom is in his early 40s. This vantage lets Bausch show the past from an older, wiser viewpoint, escaping the confines of a teenager's inexperienced vision.

"We do not bother to tell the stories that haven't changed us in some way," middle-aged Tom reflects, "because those stories are not worth telling." Recently divorced, he has time to roam through his 1967 journals, examining the year his life took such a dramatic turn. Although he is the focus, he insists, "I am not the protagonist . . . the true subject is love, at which it has always been so easy to fail."

Young Tom, with typical understatement and self-effacing humor, elsewhere puts the situation in simpler terms: "I'm afraid we were not very pleasant people a lot of the time."

Ironically, Daniel Boudreaux was a survival-training instructor, yet he leaves his family few resources to survive his absence. Wife Connie is determined not to borrow from her domineering father and, forced to vacate military housing in Maryland, she takes a job in Virginia. The train trip there with Tom and his younger sister, Lisa, is both tedious and frightening, foreshadowing hard times in close company.

Uncertainty plagues the family, which moved often in the past, but always to new possibilities; this time, Tom and Lisa are scared and depressed, and Connie is tired, irritable and demoralized.

Even before the family is settled, Connie decides they must move to Wyoming so she can visit Daniel. The family boards yet another train, and on this uncomfortable leg of their travels, they meet Penny Holt, a beautiful woman with a glass eye. She will both cause problems and serve as temporary companion for Connie, whose love for her husband is fading.

Throughout the novel - aboard trains, in Virginia, during a visit to Connie's manipulative father, finally over the long winter months in rented rooms near the prison - Bausch vividly dramatizes past events with present immediacy.

Echoing the Boudreauxs' situation, American society suffers growing turmoil over the war, as Tom recalls that a "new rage and a new hopelessness about everything seemed to be leaking into the atmosphere." When his father is finally released, Connie shows him not to the family apartment but to a single room at the end of the hall - and Tom realizes that his mother "couldn't bring herself to be simply thrown back into intimacy with him."

Writing with compassion and insight, Bausch portrays the Boudreaux clan struggling to do its best during its most difficult year. Their effort is unforgettable.

Fiction writer Irene Wanner is an editor of the Seattle Review.

-- Richard Bausch will read from "Rebel Powers" at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Company (free; 624-6600).

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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