Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: Douglas Bauer’s What Happens Next?

What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death
by Douglas Bauer
Iowa University Press, September 2013
Paperback $17

Review by William Bonfiglio

Douglas Bauer’s collection of essays, What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death reminds us of the essential connection between environment and character, and even when not written explicitly about place, Bauer’s essays retain a rooted hold into the soil from which they came. The writings included in this collection chronicle Bauer’s experiences as a child of a second-generation farming family in rural Iowa. The observations he made in his grandparents’ farmhouse on subjects such as food, aging, and his parents’ marriage provide context and perspective to his own eventual struggles, which include knee surgery, cataracts, and his mother’s deterioration and death.

Observations made and the wisdom gleaned from them can sometimes be separated dramatically in both time and space. The connections are not inherent, and a lesser writer might lapse into sentimentality or self-importance when making them. When he does acknowledge his motivations, Bauer does so earnestly, with warm, polished prose. “…I found that I wanted to live in cities, for the same reasons that anyone who wants to live in them does, for the chance to take some of their energy, to feel myself inside the pattern, the splendid shifts and tumbling of their kaleidoscopic life.” Often, he simply lets his memories speak for him, as when he writes about leading his drooling toddler brother upstairs to a floor grate, underneath which unsuspecting adults represented bombardier targets.

I was most moved in reading this book by what I recognized. I also made mischief through floor grates at my grandparents’ home. My mother also stripped baseboards and painted them white, and even today is disgusted by the appearance of cracks in the finish. Douglas Bauer has taken familiar themes, topics, and relations and crafted them into touchingly self-aware mini-memoirs. Independently, each essay stands firm. Together, they are too vibrant to remain still.

Bauer has penned several books, including Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home and The Book of Famous Iowans, that demonstrate how deeply place has inspired his writings. And this focus on place—whether it’s a drafty farmhouse or an ophthalmologist’s waiting room—more than anything else is why this book succeeds. The essays in What Happens Next? may be rooted in the Midwest, in the home, even in the kitchen, but the relationships sung within these essays touch all places and speak to all individuals.