Closing Arguments, Frederick Busch’s fifteenth book of fiction and seventeenth overall, takes its title from a screenplay which Busch wrote with Scott Millar for Home Box Office in 1987. Subtitled “The Life and Death of Roy Cohn,” that Closing Arguments deals with the man who served as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s assistant in the early 1950’s and who went on to become a high-priced New York lawyer, a noted celebrity, and finally an AIDS victim. As Busch explained to Donald Greiner, Cohn “is a very complex phenomenon, and he’s a darker side of the great Gatsby: an American crook who gave birth to himself in the great tradition of American self-inventing characters.” Closing Arguments, the novel, also deals with a lawyer—not a national figure like Cohn but a country lawyer in his early forties who is also a local hero in the kind of small upstate New York town common in Busch’s fiction. It is a place where, as Busch has said, “a lot of the people are sad, undernourished and full of hate,” an appropriate setting for this updating of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925).
A lesser figure than Cohn but better off (financially anyway) than most of his rural neighbors, Marcus (Mark) Brennan is the means by which Busch continues his exploration of the underbelly of the American dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “romantic possibilities” gone awry. Former Marine Phantom pilot (nickname Goblin), escaped POW, war hero but also victim of the post- traumatic stress disorder that afflicts so many Vietnam veterans, Mark knows just who and what he is: knows that he does real estate closing for a livelihood, knows that his wife Rochelle, a nurse turned hospital administrator, is having affairs, knows that he has failed as a father, and knows too that he would prefer that Rochelle not complete her “reconciliation project,” the monument that is her way of healing the social and psychological wounds of war and, not incidentally, restoring Mark to his rightful place as husband, hero, father. Fond of quoting Sun Tzu on the art of war but otherwise given to expressing himself in a terse, often cynically knowing, even blackly humorous way, Mark is not only the novel’s hero; he is its self-conscious and strangely detached narrator. His story, which is Busch’s novel, takes an appropriately judicial form, a courtroom drama beginning, naturally enough, with an “Opening Argument”:
Let’s say I’m telling you the story of the upstate lawyer, the post-traumatic combat stress, the splendid wife, their solitudes and infidelities, their children, his client with her awkward affinities, the sense of impending recognition by which he is haunted.
You can see me, can’t you? You can see me in my office after hours, after dark, after dawn. The bottle of ink, the sharp-nibbed pen, the pad of yellow sheets with their line after line.
The reader, placed here in the position of judge and juror, cannot, of course, actually see Mark except through and in the revelations (and concealments) of his seemingly honest yet nonetheless subjective and ultimately horrific account. Mark’s narrative unfolds in multiple directions: his relations with Rochelle, his son Jack, and his daughter Mickey, with his past (particularly his flashbacks to his abusive parents and his internment in a POW camp after he was shot down), and above all with the client whose case he takes on a pro bono basis, because it is his turn. The client is Estella Pritchett, a Social Services caseworker noted for her efforts to protect children but now accused of murdering Larry Ziegler, another Vietnam veteran, a respected local businessman who died of asphyxiation during one of his and Estella’s regular once-a-week bouts of “rough sex” in a seedy motel called The Stone’s Throw. Mark’s interest in her and the hold she soon comes to have over him give the story much of its drive and focus. As sexy as she is dangerous but only as dangerous as she is vulnerable, Estella cannot distinguish between love and death, guilt and innocence. Forced to play well above his normal professional and emotional levels, Mark seeks to penetrate the mystery she represents in a double sense: sexually (though here she, not Mark, takes the aggressive “male” part) and cognitively (learning that she has been abused not only by her mother, as she admits, but sexually by her father, as she repeatedly denies).
At the time he was completing the first draft of the other Closing Arguments, the screenplay about Roy Cohn, Busch began work on a second script, “a sweet thriller” about children. Closing Arguments is also a “sweet thriller” about children—about, more specifically, abused children, and, more generally, about the dynamics of power, love, violence, frustration, desire, and dreams. Power—or more often, powerlessness—is the key. When Estella shows up on the last day of her trial wearing a “suicidal” red dress, Mark notes, “women in a jury would have disapproved, and men would have resented her power to stimulate them.” There is, however, no jury in Closing Arguments; on Mark’s advice, Estella has waived her right to a jury trial. She acquiesces to his power legally as he does to hers sexually. In doing so, she puts herself at the mercy...
(The entire section is 2180 words.)