One could, presumably, start reading “A Hole in the Earth” without knowing what to expect, save for some spare information on the back cover. It worked for me, and I was extremely impressed by what I found and surprised by what I nearly missed.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Harcourt

Henry Porter is a man with deep problems. His affinity for horse racing led to a divorce from his wife, and a subsequent estrangement with his teenage daughter, Nicole. His wonderful girlfriend Elizabeth is pregnant but may be breaking up with him. His deeply religious parents never forgave him for his divorce. And Nicole just showed up on his doorstep at the beginning of the summer.

This wonderful character sketch of Henry comes not just through his actions, which consist mainly of gambling on horses and offending his family. It stems from the pain he feels as he tries to connect with his daughter. It comes from the author”s wonderful first-person narrative. Nicole didn”t just fix her tresses, “She brushed her hair with the impassivity and assurance of a person who has not yet come to understand that she is mortal.” Henry, at age 39, is already world-weary.

Author Robert Bausch is an English and writing teacher, and his students must be extremely fortunate to have such a clever writer to guide them. His use of language, although bordering on bad sentimentality at times (listening to him babbling about his version of the Fates is like listening to a certain bad Alanis Morrisette song), is moving and pure.

But it is his use of humor that sets him apart from most writers. At times the book is so funny that the reader is forced to laugh out loud in spite of himself. Henry is simply too amusing to ignore, despite his plight. Whether poking fun at Nicole”s supposedly irrational vegetarianism or threatening to not pay a creditor who demands payment, Henry channels his bitterness and loneliness into humor both the laugh-out-loud type and the bittersweet.

During one meal, Henry discovers that his ex-wife is celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary with her new husband. He then poses the question “Are you happy that I”m happy that she”s happy that her mother”s happy?” to his father. Another time, he realizes that he lost his first wife because he gambled and his second love because he refused to gamble. His introspection is appealing because of thoughts like this.

But not all of Henry”s life is amusing. His complicated relationship with Elizabeth makes his life with Nicole seem easy. Although he thinks he loves her, he doesn”t feel ready for fatherhood again, or marriage for that matter. Yet he can”t lose her. The letter he composes to her over a period of days (Bausch dedicates a whole chapter to it for a reason) is wonderful and tragic in its honesty.

One warning: This novel isn”t for the reader looking for a quick, shallow read. It”s addictive and a little long. Plan on spending some time with “A Hole in the Earth,” and annoying your friends by laughing out of the blue.

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