Busch, Frederick (Vol. 166)
Frederick Busch 1941-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, editor, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Busch's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, 18, and 47.
Regarded as a skilled and insightful author, Busch is admired for his realistic fiction in which he experiments with different narrative voices to examine the private lives of his protagonists. In many of his novels and short story collections, including Manual Labor (1974) and Harry and Catherine: A Love Story (1990), Busch explores the strength of familial relationships and depicts the quiet heroism of characters who confront domestic catastrophes. While his works often examine such subjects as death and alienation, they also affirm Busch's faith in the nobility of human life.
Busch was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 1, 1941. After attending local schools, he entered Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1962. After graduating, Busch became a Woodrow Wilson fellow at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, he studied seventeenth-century English literature while pursuing a master's degree, but eventually left the university without completing the program. Between 1963 and 1965, Busch held a variety of jobs including working as a clerk in a market-research firm, writing and editing for a series of small magazines, and briefly teaching English at Baruch College in New York City. In 1966 Busch was hired to teach at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. While teaching at Colgate, Busch enrolled in the university's Ph.D. English program. Although he never finished his doctorate, Busch earned a M.A. in English in 1967, writing a thesis on the fiction of John Hawkes. Busch's first two novels have never been published, but his third effort, I Wanted a Year without Fall (1971), and his first collection of short stories, Breathing Trouble and Other Stories (1973), were published and both met with critical acclaim. Busch was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1981, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship in 1982. In 1986 he won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for Invisible Mending (1984) and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his body of work. In 1991 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for “distinguished achievement in the short story.” Busch has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995 for his short story collection The Children in the Woods (1994), and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Fiction in 1999 and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2000 for his novel The Night Inspector (1999). Busch continues to teach at Colgate University as the Fairchild Professor of Literature while additionally serving as the director of the Living Writers program, a program that Busch founded.
Busch's literary career began in the 1970s with I Wanted a Year without Fall, a humorous contemporary adaptation of the Beowulf legend. I Wanted a Year without Fall was followed by the celebrated novels Manual Labor, The Mutual Friend (1978), and Rounds (1979). These works garnered Busch recognition as an author of novels that poignantly convey human emotions through diverse narrative viewpoints. Manual Labor evokes the grief experienced by a couple endeavoring to save their marriage after the wife suffers a miscarriage. The novel is related through the husband's journal entries, the wife's thoughts—presented in the form of an unmailed letter to her mother, and the voice of the dead child. The Mutual Friend departs from Busch's usual examination of contemporary relationships: the novel instead relates the story of the final years of author Charles Dickens from the perspective of George Dolby, Dickens's secretary. Rounds returns to familial concerns in its examination of pediatrician Eli Silver. Estranged from his wife following the death of their son, Silver suffers guilt and loneliness while trying to order his life through the discipline of his profession. During the 1970s, Busch also published several collections of short stories, including Breathing Trouble and Other Stories, Domestic Particulars: A Family Chronicle (1976), and Hardwater Country: Stories (1979). In Domestic Particulars, several members of an American family recount their ancestry and history from 1919 to 1976. The strained relationships within the family and their encounters with real and imagined crises are tempered by their enduring love for one another.
Busch's writing in the 1980s continued to depict domestic situations. Take This Man (1981) follows isolated events in the lives of Tony Prioleau, his lover Ellen Larue Spencer, and their illegitimate son Gus. Alternately comic and sad, the novel generates interest by contrasting the insecurities and hopes of the protagonists. Invisible Mending reminded some critics of the works of authors Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth in its depiction of a Jewish protagonist who struggles to come to terms with the Holocaust and its relationship to his heritage. In Sometimes I Live in the Country (1986) Busch explores marital discord and racial prejudice from the viewpoint of a suicidal urban adolescent who is removed to a rural community. Busch again departed from examining human relationships with When People Publish: Essays on Writers and Writing (1986). In this collection of essays, he shares his personal reflections on writing and examines the works of an assortment of his favorite authors. Absent Friends (1989) is a collection of short stories in which the common theme revolves around the characters' attempts to deal with love, loss, joy, and guilt—ideas Busch also treats in the novel War Babies (1989).
Harry and Catherine: A Love Story continues the on-again, off-again relationship of Harry and Catherine, first glimpsed in “The Trouble with Being Food,” a short story in Domestic Particulars, and who appear eight years later in the short story “The News” in Too Late American Boyhood Blues (1984). The novel follows the struggles of a fiercely independent woman and an almost too compassionate man who try, for the third time, to create a life together. Busch's next novel, Closing Arguments (1991), centers on Mark Brennan, a former Vietnam POW who is still haunted by the experiences he faced during the war. Now a lawyer, Brennan faces a modern world that seems to parallel his past in its violence and depravity while he searches for a simpler and more peaceful life. In Long Way from Home (1993), a mother abandons her husband and son to search for her birth mother in an attempt to come to grips with her past. The husband in turn abandons the child to search for his wife. The story is told from the son's point of view, exploring loneliness, abandonment, and a family's often stunted attempts at building relationships. Busch's disheartening view of the deterioration of relationships is central to the short stories in The Children in the Woods and Don't Tell Anyone (2000) as well as the novel Girls (1997). Girls is a continuation of the short story “Ralph the Duck,” which first appeared in Absent Friends. Jack, a college security guard, is asked to help solve the disappearance of a local teenage girl. He must cope with the loss of his own child—as described in “Ralph the Duck”—and come to terms with the widening chasm between his wife and himself, all while searching for the missing girl. With The Night Inspector, Busch returns to the genre of historical fiction. The novel is narrated by William Bartholomew, a Civil War veteran who is torn apart by the past both emotionally and physically. Bartholomew is forced to wear a mask after losing half of his face in the war. In an attempt to right various wrongs, Bartholomew tries to liberate a ship full of children destined for slavery. He enlists the help of a customs inspector known only as “M,” who is the author of a novel subtitled “The Whale.” The Night Inspector has been interpreted by some critics as a commentary on how novelist Herman Melville felt about the state of America after the Civil War.
Reception to Busch's writing has been generally positive, with many critics lauding his novels and short fiction for their precise use of language and uncluttered prose style. Reviewers have also praised Busch's compassionate characterizations and realistic use of dialogue, with critics such as Donald J. Greiner noting that Busch's works contain “… some of the most thoughtful dialogue written today.” Greiner has additionally praised the unique perspective that Busch brings to his modern love stories, arguing that “Busch is interested not in the cliché of the star-crossed lover but in the little tensions of the quotidian, the apparently insignificant slips and slides of the daily routine that eventually cause trouble in the kitchen, heartache in bed.” However, some reviewers have criticized Busch's attempts to expand characters and narratives from his short story collections into full-length novels, most notably in Harry and Catherine and Girls. Antonya Nelson has commented that Girls “does not achieve the same high level of synthesis” as “Ralph the Duck,” which she contends is a “short-story masterpiece.” Scholars have also commended Busch's works of historical fiction, complimenting the detailed descriptions of nineteenth-century America and England in The Mutual Friend and The Night Inspector.
I Wanted a Year without Fall (novel) 1971
Breathing Trouble and Other Stories (short stories) 1973
Hawkes: A Guide to His Fictions (nonfiction) 1973
Manual Labor (novel) 1974
Domestic Particulars: A Family Chronicle (short stories) 1976
The Mutual Friend (novel) 1978
Hardwater Country: Stories (short stories) 1979
Rounds (novel) 1979
Take This Man (novel) 1981
Invisible Mending (novel) 1984
Too Late American Boyhood Blues: Ten Stories (short stories) 1984
Sometimes I Live in the Country (novel) 1986
When People Publish: Essays on Writers and Writing (essays) 1986
Absent Friends (short stories) 1989
War Babies (novel) 1989
Harry and Catherine: A Love Story (novel) 1990
Closing Arguments (novel) 1991
Long Way from Home (novel) 1993
The Children in the Woods: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1994
Girls: A Novel (novel) 1997
A Dangerous Profession: A Book about the Writing Life (essays) 1998
Letters to a Fiction Writer [editor]...
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SOURCE: Busch, Frederick, and Miriam Berkley. “PW Interviews: Frederick Busch.” Publishers Weekly 225, no. 13 (30 March 1984): 58-9.
[In the following interview, Busch discusses his works, analyzes his attachment to his characters, and shares insights on his life and his approach to writing.]
Frederick Busch writes fiction in a barn built for sheep in the small upstate New York town of Sherburne. Visible in the distance is Cooperstown, with the Baseball Hall of Fame he loves. A few hundred yards from his study is the renovated farmhouse he shares with his wife, Judy, and their two sons; the kitchen is toasty from a wood-burning stove. It's clear, crisp and cold outside on the late January day on which we speak with Busch, a man of moderate height and immodest heft, about his new novel, Invisible Mending, out this month from Godine (PW Fiction Forecasts, Feb. 3).
At the age of 42, Fred Busch, with five previously published novels and three collections of stories—a fourth is due this summer—has an enviable reputation for the sensitivity he brings to his characters, a striking ability to assume a wide range of fictional personas, and elegant prose. Invisible Mending, which shares the virtues of its predecessors, also charts what is for Busch hitherto unexplored territory: his Jewishness. As it begins, Zimmer, a Jew separated from his non-Jewish wife and...
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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. Review of Sometimes I Live in the Country, by Frederick Busch. Hudson Review 39, no. 4 (winter 1987): 646-47.
[In the following excerpt, Pritchard presents a primarily favorable assessment of Busch's Sometimes I Live in the Country.]
Mr. Busch is a veteran whose book [Sometimes I Live in the Country] (the eleventh to his credit) takes as its familiar stomping ground the unmemorable patch of run-down upstate New York farm country north of Binghamton, south of Utica, dotted by towns with names like Sherburne, Poolville, Hubbardsville. This area, filled with marginal houses (“shitboxes” the narrator calls them here) and people (“corn-heads” is the term) is the country to which the hero, a four-teen-year-old named Petey, and his father, an ex-detective turned school administrator, have migrated from Brooklyn. Petey's parents are divorced, his mother disappeared, and the lad is in such dangerous shape that he plays Russian roulette with his father's revolver. The novel traces Petey's emergence from self-destruction into a recognition and even acceptance of the world outside his head. It is told in a prose verging on the flat and toneless, often effective as it renders the dismal:
There was a horrible house made of thin boards nailed in every direction. It was green-brown and it looked like the air blew through it. A...
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SOURCE: Blades, John. “Author Revels in the Joys and Dangers of Writing.” Chicago Tribune Books (8 February 1987): 3.
[In the following review, Blades praises Busch's essays in When People Publish, giving particular commendation to the selections that are introspective.]
Taking his cue from Hemingway, Frederick Busch calls serious writing a “dangerous” practice, going on to warn: “It doesn't keep the darkness out. Nothing so safe: it lets the darkness in.” By that definition, Busch himself is a dangerous man, a prince of darkness, and anyone with delusions about writing as a reasonably safe and sane occupation had best avoid his books, in particular his newest, When People Publish: Essays on Writers and Writing.
With writing manuals a dollar a dozen in our inflationary era, Busch's book of essays—autobiographical, critical, inspirational—is a genuine rarity as well as a paradox. Busch is no false messiah, promising eternal rewards for those who follow his advice on how to write. He has little formal advice to offer; nor does he pretend to know how to teach others how to write. If anything, he's ruthlessly honest about the occupational hazards of writing, especially fiction writing, which could be what he calls, in another context, “The Language of Starvation.”
And yet, while it is often dark and brooding, Busch's book is also an...
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SOURCE: Busch, Frederick, and Donald J. Greiner. “An Interview with Frederick Busch.” Iowa Review 18, no. 2 (summer 1988): 147-73.
[In the following interview, Busch analyzes current critical theory and its effect on writers, discusses the inconvenience of being both a writer and a teacher, evaluates his education and its impact on his writing, and gives in-depth explanations about the inspirational sources for his works.]
Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Frederick Busch now lives on more than one hundred acres of untamed countryside in Sherburne, New York. He was educated at Muhlenberg College and Columbia University, and since 1971 he has published thirteen books—eight novels, three collections of short stories, and two books of criticism—among them The Mutual Friend (1978), Rounds (1979), and Invisible Mending (1984). In 1986 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters honored Busch with a five-thousand-dollar award in recognition of his contribution to American letters. In this interview, which took place on 6 June 1987 in Sherburne, Busch discusses first the problems with publishing fiction in the United States, the richness of contemporary American literature in general and the versatility of novels by living American writers in particular, and the effect of his education. He then offers commentary on his own work: how he wrote the novels, why he focuses on the...
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SOURCE: Garrett, George. “American Publishing Now.” Sewanee Review 96, no. 3 (summer 1988): 516-17.
[In the following excerpt, Garrett provides a positive assessment of Busch's When People Publish.]
These wildly different books are, in one way and another, devoted to publishing and the contemporary scene in publishing—or, at least, they profess to be dealing with publishing. Of course, either way, and perhaps this is appropriate, considering the ostensible subject, you can be fooled.
For instance, it is hard to believe that Frederick Busch and his publisher, the University of Iowa Press, didn't set out to sucker somebody with When People Publish. The dustjacket, among other things, advertises a couple of Iowa's recent books about publishing: Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers and Alternative Literary Publishing: Five Modern Histories. The jacket, taken together with the title of this book, might—except to a hardboiled cynic or a kid brought up in front of a television set—seem to imply that Busch's book is part of a sort of informal series on publishing. The truth is that When People Publish is a grab bag of personal and literary essays by Busch, all kinds of interesting perceptions and observations about life and literature, all kinds of interesting literary subjects—Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mailer and...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Sorrow and the Pity Balanced by Power and Beauty.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 May 1989): 3.
[In the following review, Eder praises the stories in Busch's Absent Friends and provides highlights of the pieces he finds particularly poignant.]
If Frederick Busch wrote about grapes, the birds would eat them off the pages. He writes about people, and we rock slightly in their wind as they go by.
Like other prominent American short story writers, his subject is distances of all kinds; between mates, lovers, friends, generations, bosses and employees, and most of all, between the individual and his or her life.
Busch is not content with revealing the distances. He dramatizes them. His characters rail at them, fight them, treat them with passion. They speak vividly, bitingly; they are often defeated but rarely resigned.
Almost all the stories in Absent Friends are downbeat, but they display a living, not a dying fall. Busch surrounds his people with ice, raises their temperatures a degree or two above normal and heightens their colors. Some of the stories are sardonic; the best are extremely sad. It is the deeper sadness that comes out of the plight of people with a talent for happiness.
“Name the Name,” perhaps the loveliest, angriest and saddest of the stories, lays out a scene of...
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SOURCE: Shafer, Fred. “Love and Guilt.” Chicago Tribune Books (19 November 1989): 4.
[In the following laudatory review of War Babies, Shafer compliments Busch's skillful characterizations.]
One of Frederick Busch's achievements as a writer of fiction lies in his ability to portray a mature, sensitive relationship between a man and a woman.
His latest novel, War Babies, centers on Peter Santore, an American lawyer whose father was a turncoat in the Korean War, and Hilary Pennel, the daughter of an English officer who died a martyr in the same POW camp where Santore's father collaborated with the enemy. They meet and fall swiftly in love when Peter travels to her home at Salisbury, in the south of England, hoping to obtain new information about the camp and perhaps ease his lifelong guilt over his father's actions.
It is to Busch's credit that the reader accepts the suddenness with which this affair develops. Peter and Hilary are presented so convincingly, their dialogue flowing with easy repartee and frank eroticism, that it seems inevitable when they become lovers on their first evening together. At first Hilary attributes their success to an abstract power, “fate … something that predetermines what you [do].” But the relationship grows because they both work at it, responding to each other's needs, sharing confidences, starting to wonder about...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Can You Love a Woman Who Scares You?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 February 1990): 3, 5.
[In the following favorable review of Harry and Catherine, Eder examines the dynamics of the relationship between the two title characters.]
Harry: Brave, funny and a little tubby, battered by life into understanding but not yet out of outrageousness, is as truly a modern male hero as a very large-size writer such as Frederick Busch can devise. And Catherine, brave, funny, long-legged, big-shouldered, sexy and intransigent, is as truly a wonderful woman.
In their 40s, each loves the other more than either has ever loved anyone else. Twice they have lived together and then split, what with Catherine's instinct for independence and Harry's for indecisiveness.
Harry and Catherine tells of the third try. Catherine has been living in Upstate New York, running an art gallery and sharing her house with Carter, a local contractor she is only fond of. Middle age is almost here; her sons are almost grown, and the thought of Harry, though suppressed, is like a debt put off.
And then Harry, an incipiently balding Lochinvar out of Washington, goes north in a rented car, leaking as much trepidation as exhaust, but with an impetus both stirring and comic. “He was,” Catherine will reflect, “the most hesitant brave man she had...
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SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. Review of Absent Friends, by Frederick Busch. Hudson Review 43, no. 1 (spring 1990): 153-54.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus examines the subtle message of hope and empowerment in Absent Friends.]
In contrast, something fascinatingly altruistic haunts the pages of Frederick Busch's new book, Absent Friends, despite its themes of loneliness and estrangement. Busch begins this collection of fourteen stories with an epigram from A Tale of Two Cities the burden of which is that every beating heart is “a secret to the heart nearest it,” and that “Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself” may be referable to that fact. Nonetheless in stating things as he has, Busch, like Dickens, only convinces us the more of his gregariousness, despite his affectation of despair.
To be sure, many of these stories are set in the North where it is cold, and all the characters experience the pain of separation, but most of them also seem to be on a mission to overcome their loneliness. In the opening novella-length “From the New World,” a middle-aged son decides not to open the letter his deceased father left for him, not to acknowledge the old hurts and old pains which had driven him from his family in the first place and, moreover, not to argue with his sister over the distribution of the remaining family possessions....
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SOURCE: D'Evelyn, Thomas. Review of Harry and Catherine, by Frederick Busch. Christian Science Monitor (25 April 1990): 13.
[In the following review, D'Evelyn praises the way Busch challenges readers to make choices in Harry and Catherine.]
Two men as different as they can be think they love Catherine. One, named Carter, is all action, a contractor in the building trades; the other, named Harry, is a word man, once a poet and journalist, now an aide for a senator from New York. Tough choice for Catherine.
Harry & Catherine, the new novel by Frederick Busch, who is a professor of literature at Colgate University, is about these two men and how they compete for her love. So it's a romance and a quest vividly set in rural upstate New York. As it opens, Carter is living with Catherine and her two growing boys and Drown, the aging Labrador. When Harry shows up, she hasn't seen him in more than a decade. The boys love Harry and it's a homecoming of sorts.
The pretext for his visit is to investigate a complaint made by a constituent of the senator, who complained that the old black burial ground, dating from Civil War days, is about to be black-topped over to make a parking lot for a shopping center. The senator thinks he might ride this one all the way to the White House.
Catherine is perplexed. Harry's return shows her she doesn't really...
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SOURCE: Greiner, Donald J. “The Absent Friends of Frederick Busch.” Gettysburg Review 3, no. 4 (autumn 1990): 746-54.
[In the following essay, Greiner analyzes Busch's characterizations in regard to definitive gender roles, sexual identity and freedom in Harry and Catherine and War Babies.]
Not many American authors make a career of writing about adult love. The vagaries of youth seem more popular, sweetly sad accounts of how the indifferent world, or war, or family, or life itself trips up the first, tentative steps toward passion and commitment. But for Frederick Busch the dilemmas of middle age are the heart of fiction, the complex material that the writer shapes in order to show how most of us live our lives. Busch is interested not in the cliché of the star-crossed lover but in the little tensions of the quotidian, the apparently insignificant slips and slides of the daily routine that eventually cause trouble in the kitchen, heartache in bed. His people talk; in some of the most thoughtful dialogue written today, they talk about mundane issues that impinge on adult love.
Lately more readers have been listening. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Invisible Mending in 1984 and of the Award in Literature from the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, Busch has published fourteen books of fiction since 1971. The latest two,...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Greg. “Novellas for the Nineties.” Georgia Review 45, no. 2 (summer 1991): 363-65, 370-71.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson examines the “novella” genre and gives a favorable review of War Babies.]
Beloved by writers, but often scorned by editors and readers, the novella has held a long but uncertain tenancy in the house of fiction. Traditionally considered too brief for individual publication in book form, but too lengthy for the format of most magazines and journals, the novella has broken into print most often as part of a short-story collection or alongside several other novellas in a classroom anthology. A few contemporary writers have managed to publish single novellas (presumably because an established reputation makes such publication commercially feasible), and literary magazines will sometimes make room for an outstanding example of the form. But while the short story has been enjoying a renaissance, and the lyric poem is a prestigious staple of literary journals and small presses, the novella remains a furtive, largely ignored presence in the publishing world, partly because the expansive, “blockbuster” novel and the minimalist short story are still the most visible categories in American fiction.
The novella is vulnerable not only to the demands of the marketplace; even academic critics, so voluble about the novel and the story, have either...
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SOURCE: Fortuna, Diane. Review of Closing Arguments, by Frederick Busch. America 166, no. 3 (1 February 1992): 67-8.
[In the following review, Fortuna comments on what she considers Busch's adept handling of the moral ambiguity of the modern era in Closing Arguments.]
Perhaps the last years of a century always produce a cultural perception of decadence and chaos. At the turn of the 20th century, diminutive Henry Adams, it is said, walked up and down the halls of Congress shaking his head and complaining that the country was going to the dogs. In our own time, fin-de-siècle despair seems augmented by millenial jitters. Violence, perverse sexuality and corruption, it would seem, are rotting America, its government, its laws and their enforcement. In Frederick Busch's court-room thriller, Closing Arguments, this sense of moral bankruptcy amounts to an indictment of the United States: duplicity during the Vietnam War; corruptible legal system; institutional and family violence, and salacious marital and extra-marital deceptions. Like Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, Busch's lawyer, Mark Brennan, is married, flawed and believable; unlike Turow, Busch presents his character as the fragile consciousness bombarded by all the stresses of the post-Vietnam era.
The novel consists of the testimony of Brennan, an upstate New York lawyer who is haunted by recollections of his...
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SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Closing Arguments, by Frederick Busch. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1992): 162.
[In the following review, Malin examines the violence of action and of words in Closing Arguments.]
Although many readers of this terrifying, violent novel [Closing Arguments] will view it as a narrative of sexual obsession, of “innocence” and “guilt” (or the ambiguity of each term), they will not notice that Busch is a philosophical writer who is aware of linguistic uncertainty, epistemological difficulty. The novel, we can say, moves on two levels. The narrator, a Vietnam survivor, is a lawyer asked to defend Estella, a “forceful” woman accused of murdering her lover in bed. The violence of the war is subtly married to the violence of sexuality. And we are never allowed to forget the violence. The narration is jagged, broken, dislocated; the sections of the novel are abruptly short. There is a sense of mutilation as the sections—and the language of each section—start and end suddenly. Busch understands that no story—in court or out of court—can have closure, finality, absolute truth. Busch believes that our identities are unsure, mixed, fragile. We refuse, for the most part, to accept our notions of “self,” of continuous existence. For such reasons the trial is a fiction that remains incomplete—despite summations and closing...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Chaos, Convincingly.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 May 1993): 3, 8.
[In the following review, Eder finds that the beginning of Long Way from Home would be excellent as a short story, but by stretching the story to novel length, Busch loses the tight plot and seamless flow present in his other works.]
The opening of Frederick Busch's new novel [Long Way from Home] is like an abandon-ship alarm in the small hours of the morning. In our cloudy awakening, it is a siren too insistent to be imagined; at the same time there is the dream-like chaos of feet pattering in different directions, a continual unintelligible snarling over the ship's loudspeaker and the unmistakable fact that the deck lists.
The Mastricola family had somehow chugged along despite failing engines, sprung plates and erratic steering. Busch starts off with the day all these things give way at once. He does it in the register he commands so well: his ability to express the violence, anguish, humor and complexity of a climactic moment; to strike simultaneous dissonances in a way that heightens clarity instead of blurring it.
We get, in the first few dozen pages, a succession of cameos. Lizzie Mastricola, the principal of an Upstate New York school, is off her confident stride out of worry about her married daughter, Sarah. Willis, Lizzie's husband and editor of...
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SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. Review of The Children in the Woods, by Frederick Busch. Chicago Tribune Books (13 March 1994): 6.
[In the following review, Allen praises the short stories contained in The Children in the Woods.]
Frederick Busch's accomplished and disturbing stories operate as if they're soundings—in which a delicate sensing device is lowered into fissures in the surfaces of marriage and family life, emerging covered with fragmented, bloodied, incriminating minutiae.
Assembled with commanding artistry, they're discoveries of the harm that we, as children and parents and spouses and lovers, unthinkingly do to one another and to ourselves—communicated in a sad, stunned, accusatory tone through which we seem to hear the same realization, “Everybody's a secret from everybody else,” repeated again and again.
Like John Updike, Busch builds vibrating drama from the specificity of everyday actions that are cautiously, sometimes fearfully undertaken. (He can, for example, make us flinch in embarrassment for the miserably incompetent householder who politely kowtows to the plumber he's summoned to repair his cellar pump.) He conveys our imperfect grasp of practical considerations as if presenting evidence that everywhere in our lives lurk challenges to the delusion that we control the world we inhabit. Staccato sentences and clipped, laconic dialogue...
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SOURCE: McGrath, Patrick. “A Trail of Bread Crumbs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 March 1994): 3, 9.
[In the following review, McGrath feels that Busch demonstrates skillful and powerful writing abilities in several stories in The Children in the Woods, but that many of the tales lack the in-depth characterization and plot structure for which Busch is known.]
One of the strongest stories in Frederick Busch's new collection, The Children in the Woods, is “Berceuse,” and one of the strongest moments in “Berceuse” comes when an awful Jewish woman called Miriam tells her goy sister-in-law Kim that Kim's recent miscarriage occurred because of the Holocaust. “Oh yes,” she said, “Your baby died because you murdered us. Every one of you murdered our dead. Ask your priests. Ask your dead God. The fruit of your womb is death.”
Miriam is one of the few monsters in the book. But she is thematically central in that she tells Kim the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” who are of course the eponymous children in the woods. The fairy tale has a charged significance for Holocaust-obsessed Miriam in that the witch in the gingerbread house wanted to cook Hansel in an oven. For Frederick Busch the tale has a much broader application: His characters are all children in the woods, the woods being life in general, marriage and childhood in particular. Some are...
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SOURCE: Allen, Glen Scott. Review of The Children in the Woods, by Frederick Busch. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 237-38.
[In the following review, Allen enthusiastically lauds Busch's eloquence and the form and content of the stories contained in The Children in the Woods.]
When someone asked Emmanuel Sléyès what he had done during the Reign of Terror, he replied, “I survived.” Though the characters in the stories of Frederick Busch's latest collection [The Children in the Woods] don't have to contend with quite the same adversities as Monsieur Sléyès, they nevertheless encounter revelations that are, in our modern context, just as terrifying. And, more often than not, they survive them.
These revelations usually involved the acquisition of knowledge—the sort of knowledge that we frequently already possess, but pretend that we don't: parents have lives entirely secret from their children; there is a point beyond which damaged love cannot be repaired; people use other people even when (and as) they love them. The families in these stories create stories of their own, stories about who and what they are as entities—stories that are often at odds with reality, but that help them to deal with the disappointments and tragedies of that reality. Clearly, the title's allusion to Hansel and Gretel invites reading these as stories of innocence lost;...
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SOURCE: Hanstedt, Paul. “Plot and Character in Contemporary Fiction.” Shenandoah 47 (winter 1997): 128-29, 132-35.
[In the following excerpt, Hanstedt expresses the importance of characterization and a well written plot in novels and, using this criteria, gives Busch's Girls a positive assessment.]
Perhaps one of the best-known maxims concerning fiction comes from E. M. Forster, who, in 1927, wrote:
We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. … If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”
For Forster, in other words, “good” writing explored how individuals struggled within themselves—with grief, in the case of the aforementioned queen, with something more abstract and complex in Forster's own writing and the works of Joyce, Woolf and others. “Bad” writing, in contrast, focused on events. This happened, then that happened, and then the hero kills all the bad guys. In “good” literature, character dominates the text; as a result, very little need happen to keep the reader's attention. In “bad” literature, character is secondary: one could...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Darkness Visible.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 March 1997): 2.
[In the following review of Girls, Eder finds that Busch's characters appear one-dimensional and his heavy-handed morality is occasionally overbearing.]
In subzero weather, several dozen diggers work their way across a snow-covered field in upstate New York. It looks like Breughel, but it is Hieronymus Bosch.
Police and townspeople prod and sift for the corpse of Janice Tanner, a 14-year-old murdered by her middle-aged lover. They wield their shovels and crowbars with exemplary delicacy. “The idea was not to break any frozen parts of her away.”
The opening of Frederick Busch's despairing morality tale has a cinematic brilliance. As it proceeds, the morality gleams darkly. It is the cinematic or perhaps the theatrical quality that flags, unable to support the weight of the story itself.
Girls is set in and around the campus of an expensive New York university not unlike Colgate, where Busch is a professor. Its narrator and protagonist is Jack, the campus police chief. He is tough but sensitive—he could be the genre detective of a hard-boiled thriller. Sardonic wit, that is, macho allure and a capacity to take and hand out brutal physical punishment. World-weary, he pulses with the barely contained violence not of an evil man but of a...
(The entire section is 1180 words.)
SOURCE: Nelson, Antonya. “Literary Fiction Meets Detective Novel in the Search for a Missing Girl.” Chicago Tribune Books (16 March 1997): 5, 11.
[In the following review, Nelson praises Busch's portrayal of Jack, an emotionally bombarded protagonist in Girls, but asserts that the novel attempts to combine too many genres resulting in an uneven work.]
“Ralph the Duck,” by Frederick Busch, is a short-story masterpiece. In it, a tough guy narrates the aftermath of a personal tragedy—the death of his daughter—by providing an account of his days as campus cop at a small New England college. His job is to baby-sit the men and women—boys and girls, in his eyes—as they make their way through higher education, and his paternal urge is satisfied when he rescues a student from herself, intervening heroically to prevent her suicide as a kind of antidote to having been unable to prevent his own child's death.
It's not surprising that Busch would want to follow this enormously complex and beleaguered narrator further, and he does so in Girls, a novel that uses “Ralph the Duck” as its second chapter and engine. The narrator, Jack, is reminiscent of a familiar kind of private detective, and the author's intentions are admirable: the blend of character-driven literary fiction with plot-driven detective story. Like many of the most appealing P.I.'s, Jack has suffered a...
(The entire section is 1074 words.)
SOURCE: Busch, Frederick, and Charlotte Zoë Walker. “Practitioner of a Dangerous Profession: A Conversation with Frederick Busch.” Poets & Writers 27, no. 3 (May-June 1999): 33-7.
[In the following interview, conducted in March 1999, Busch discusses Letters to a Fiction Writer and The Night Inspector, and ruminates about the short-story genre.]
Frederick Busch is one of our most distinguished and accomplished fiction writers. Of his 23 published books, 19 are fiction. His 4 nonfiction works are all related to his passionate engagement with the craft of writing. He has been awarded the PEN/Malamud award for achievement in short fiction, has won the National Jewish Book Award, and has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. His novel Girls (Fawcett, 1998) was selected as a New York Times Book Review notable book. He has been acting director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and is Edgar Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University. His three most recent books are all, in one way or another, about writing. The Night Inspector, a novel in which Herman Melville is a principle character, explores several powerful and significant themes: war, social injustice, parental love—but prominent among these is the struggle of the writer whose work has been ignored or forgotten. A Dangerous Profession is a...
(The entire section is 3196 words.)
SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “About Writers: Hack, Serious, and Academic.” Georgia Review 53, no. 1 (spring 1999): 164-65, 169-72.
[In the following excerpt, Pinsker examines how writers feel about their profession, and provides a positive assessment of A Dangerous Profession, Busch's collection of essays about writing.]
“This isn't writing,” Truman Capote famously observed about Jack Kerouac's On the Road, “it's typing.” Thus was it ever—from the days when putting words on the page was so much scribble-scribble with a quill pen, to pounding away on a manual typewriter, and finally to our current love affair with keyboarding. What has remained constant is not just the yawning gap between “somebody who writes” and a writer, but also the hard economic truths that pit serious (which is to say, underappreciated) writers against the hacks who end up on the bestseller list and smile all the way to the bank.
As I tell my students, you're a writer when you write something. Period. Adjectives such as rich or famous are largely beyond your control. For better or worse, others will decide about these matters, beginning with the editor who accepts your piece and puts his hand into his pocket to pay for it, and continuing through a long series of book reviewers and literary critics.
In short, the writing life was never for...
(The entire section is 2113 words.)
SOURCE: Frank, Michael. “More! Again!” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 May 1999): 7-8.
[In the following excerpt, Frank rationalizes that being an avid reader directly influences an author's work and outlook on life, and examines Busch's A Dangerous Profession in relation to this theory.]
All reading is rereading. Consider: It is said that in order to learn a new word, children must hear it repeated on average 72 times. Their first books are splendidly versatile objects, part toy, part teething tool, part picture gallery, part—largely—containers of magical shapes that compel an adult to speak the same sounds over and over, making a rhyme or a story reappear out of (it seems) ether. No one who has spent even a few hours in close company with children can fail to observe the way young expanding minds thirst for repetition in play, in domestic rituals and in reading alike. “More!” comes the command, “Again!”; and the same board book is flipped back to the same gnawed cover so that its skeletal narrative can be told, and heard, anew.
Bound in this tightly whorled bud of a beginning reader is a taste—more than that, a need—for circularity that seems fundamental to the act of reading. One more commonly thinks of reading as a linear experience: From title page to final period, the eye and the hand tug the brain forward. Yet the brain does not always comply. It...
(The entire section is 1317 words.)
SOURCE: Hove, Thomas. Review of The Night Inspector, by Frederick Busch. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 3 (fall 1999): 179.
[In the following review, Hove praises Busch's The Night Inspector, describing it as an outstanding work of historical fiction.]
This remarkable historical novel [The Night Inspector] has one of the most interesting narrators in recent American fiction, a former sniper for the Union during the Civil War named William Bartholomew. His story plays out in 1867, in Manhattan's nightmarish Five Points neighborhood, where he befriends a customs inspector—one Herman Melville, whose fiction he at one time read and admired. Melville enthusiasts should be satisfied by Busch's portrayal of him and its sensitivity toward recent developments in Melville scholarship and biography. But Busch judiciously keeps Bartholomew at center stage, his story reflecting and extending the economic preoccupations and moral ambiguities of Melville's fiction. Half of his face having been shot off in the war, Bartholomew wears a mask that recalls the “pasteboard mask” of visible reality through which Melville's Ahab wants so badly to strike. To Ahab, one thing that mask stands for is the inhuman logic behind both the Christian problem of evil and the global capitalist system. But instead of hunting for a white whale, Bartholomew attempts to find redemption within that...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Cynicism and Its Discontents.” Hudson Review 52, no. 4 (winter 2000): 659-61.
[In the following excerpt, Flower compliments Busch's prose in The Night Inspector and comments on what he sees as the novel's gloomy atmosphere in the post-Civil War era.]
Other writers find it a much grimmer proposition, as Frederick Busch's latest novel [The Night Inspector] indicates. Its narrator, William Bartholomew, is a former sharpshooter in the Union Army who wears a prosthetic mask because half of his face has been blown away. Now a successful businessman by day, he stalks the streets of New York City by night, remembering each deadly bullet he fired in the Civil War. Fixing the story in time and place are a series of period maps and photographs of wharves, crowded streets, commercial houses. We also learn that Bartholomew was the soldier who posed for Winslow Homer's famous engraving, The Sharpshooter. What's more he befriends a certain lugubrious Customs Inspector—designated only as “M”—who once wrote a novel subtitled “The Whale.” Soon it becomes apparent that the documentary impulse of the novel verges upon something darker: an attempt to suggest how Herman Melville might have seen the nation after the failure of his books and the catastrophe of the Civil War.
Not an easy task, but Busch manages it surprisingly well. He makes “M”...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Don't Tell Anyone, by Frederick Busch. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 34 (21 August 2000): 44.
[In the following review, the critic commends Busch for presenting moving prose and heartrending stories in Don't Tell Anyone.]
Because his writing is masterly and his perceptions dazzling and true, it's exhilarating to encounter each of the 16 stories and one novella in Busch's new collection [Don't Tell Anyone]. All of them resonate with incisive observations about the burdens of love and connectedness, and the inevitability of betrayal and disillusion. In every story, the dialogue is brisk, funny and tender, sometimes improbably whip-smart but always insistently voiced. Busch's prose is restrained yet poignant, and he hooks readers with arresting opening sentences (“Did I tell you she was raped?”; “I loved his mother once”), and delivers heartbreak with closing lines (“Often, of course, there are no bells”). There are no vague, drifting conclusions here; a strong, affecting denouement closes each tale. The narratives are set mainly in small communities in upstate New York, but also in Brooklyn, Maine and Seattle, and the protagonists come from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Most are stories of betrayal—deliberate or inadvertent—but in Busch's world of fallible human beings inevitable. In some tales, there is cautious hope. The grieving widower in...
(The entire section is 409 words.)
SOURCE: Guy, David. “Secrets and Lies.” Washington Post Book World (12 November 2000): 8.
[In the following laudatory review, Guy explores the many deceptions and hidden lives in Busch's Don't Tell Anyone.]
My favorite piece in this collection of expert stories [Don't Tell Anyone] is the last one, a mid-length novella entitled “A Handbook for Spies.” Willie Bernstein is an English instructor in upstate New York in the '60s. He is dodging the draft and trying to figure out who he is, so hapless that he doesn't even know that his instructor status is itself a draft deferment; he doesn't need another.
Into his life walks the daughter of one of the full professors. Tanya Fevler—who calls herself Tony—is “two years younger than Willie, and a century more experienced.” She is also the wife of a Vietnam vet whom she claims has been horribly disfigured, though there's plenty she's not telling. Prof. Fevler keeps calling his daughter damaged and disturbed, but she comes across as a domineering woman, fond of power games and public sex. She overwhelms Willie and becomes the center of his life.
Behind this episode is the issue of antisemitism, which keeps emerging in bits of dialogue. Behind it also is a subplot—which soon becomes the main one—about Willie's parents, who had fled Nazi-occupied France as a young couple. Willie's father, an urbane...
(The entire section is 780 words.)
Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, no. 4 (fall 1997): 613-14.
Bell provides an overview of Busch's novel Girls.
Coates, Joseph. “Modern Romance.” Chicago Tribune Books (25 March 1990): 1, 7.
Coates commends Busch's well-drawn characters and crisp, realistic dialogue in Harry and Catherine.
“Childish Parents.” Economist 327, no. 7816 (19 June 1993): 95.
The critic examines the selfish activities of the parents in Long Way from Home.
Ferriss, Lucy. Review of Girls, by Frederick Busch. Prairie Schooner 72, no. 4 (winter 1998): 199-200.
Ferriss evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Girls.
Garrett, George. “Such Scenes I Never Dreamed Of: Recent Books about the Civil War.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 2 (spring 2000): 259-70.
Garrett discusses narrative techniques used in current Civil War-era fiction and nonfiction books including The Night Inspector.
Gess, Denise. Review of Don't Tell Anyone, by Frederick Busch. Book (November 2000): 80.
Gess offers a positive assessment of Don't Tell Anyone.
Grumbach, Doris. “Family Pictures.” Chicago Tribune Books (16 May 1993):...
(The entire section is 250 words.)