The essays in Douglas Bauer’s latest collection, What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death, were written in his early sixties after Bauer scheduled a month’s worth of appointments and tests to address “the cataracts that had long been ripening in both eyes”; his heart, which “beat too rapidly for no reason I could trace”; and his “arthritic left knee, a problem for decades.” On the first day of his planned doctors’ visits, his mother died, and Bauer flew from Boston back to Iowa to piece together his life.
Admittedly, this sounds like an unpromising premise for a book, and knowing that What Happens Next? is part of the University of Iowa’s series Iowa and the Midwest Experience may make some readers even more skeptical of the book’s appeal. Add to that the fact that the chief subjects of What Happens Next? are Bauer’s health, his childhood on a farm near Prairie City, and, above all, his parents uneventful but epically unhappy marriage, and the average person not from the Hawkeye State could be excused for heading pell-mell to the nearest coast.
That would be a shame, though, because Bauer takes this apparently mundane material and turns it into literature. His writing is precise, gently humorous, and full of insights into why we make our live’s decisions and how we respond to their consequences. His essays attempt to answer two fundamental questions: Why are we the way we are, and what makes our parents tick? For Bauer, as for most of us, the answers are connected. Yes, as a writer he draws on fond memories of “playing ‘avalanche’ in the coal shed” and pretending that the family’s “dark, low-ceilinged chicken coop” was a “vast stadium hosting a daily televised World Cup” of egg gathering. Yet his parents’ dissatisfaction with one another, and especially the disappointments of his mother, clearly launched him out of rural Iowa and into the wider world.
Although Bauer is also a fiction writer, creative nonfiction is unquestionably the proper genre for his long examinations of emotional cause and effect. And while readers might feel that Bauer’s difficult mother made his life fairly miserable, he writes about her with the same quiet patience he attributes to his father. Sorrow, rather than resentment or anger, is the dominant note in the essays, as in “The Life He Left Her,” where Bauer observes, “their years together as I saw them comprised a long narrative of quiet erosion, colored chiefly by the steady wearing away of her respect for him. And in reaction, his retreat into a silent obduracy.”
“What We Hunger For,” the penultimate essay, contrasts the great essayist and food critic M.F.K. Fisher with Bauer’s insular and fiercely judgmental mother. In most ways, the two couldn’t be more different, but as he recalls the two women nearing death, they are, inevitably, akin: “… in desperate unison, becoming the same as they fought for life as life was leaving them; their grasping lungs; their frantic hearts; fortunate to grow old, disintegrate, and finally die.” What we most hunger for, Bauer argues here, and throughout the What Matters Next? is simply our next breath.