Frederick Busch has written nineteen books of fiction, and in the process developed a style which, in the sixteen stories and one novella which constitute Don’t Tell Anyone, relies on a kind of witty politeness to express the problems his characters have with each other and themselves. The theme, in tandem with this style and with the conflicts it presents, is secrets.
“Heads,” the first story in the book, shows a woman who has no secrets, while her mother, who is the narrator, does. Alec has been raped by her lover, has stabbed him in the face for it, and has been forced into court. She not only raves about it to her mother but, just as she has torn up her stuffed toy cat, she also lops off the heads of the bride-and-groom ornament from her mother’s wedding cake, in honor of her own disbelief in the promises of men. The mother, on the other hand, keeps her own feelings for her dead husband a secret, except from the reader. If the girl, ironically a law student, believes the law of vengeance supersedes the law of contracts between lovers, her mother cannot tell her that such contracts must be endured to be successful.
Alec’s sort of rage is more subdued in Kevin Slater in “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Again, something is revealed and something concealed in this story. Kevin is angry with his mother for having been unfaithful to his father, and he runs away from home and drops in on his parents’ friends Bob and Gillian to tell them the news. Bob, a lawyer, is the narrator, and he lets the reader know that he himself slept with the boy’s mother years before, and it is her he thinks of when he makes love to his wife. However, he is not about to tell this to Kevin, let alone to Gillian. While Kevin sulks and chops wood as if he were decapitating those who have betrayed him, Bob, because he is included among the betrayers, senses that his wife knows and might seek vengeance by sleeping with seventeen-year-old Kevin. The story seems to say that secrets kept from those they would hurt can lead to violence if they are revealed.
In “Malvasia,” Graham, a publisher, does not “publish” (that is, talk about) his lingering grief over the death of his wife, Sarah, when his daughter Malvasia visits him. Though he is a mess because of Sarah’s death, he pretends his grief is not poisoning his life. At the end, he trims his beard to show Malvasia, rather than tell her, that he is on the mend. Here, experience is a secret best told through metaphors.
The secret in “The Talking Cure” is that the mother of Peter, the narrator, seems to have slept with Victor Mason, the veterinarian Peter works for. Without revealing his dalliance with the mother, Mason appears to take on the role of father, but he is only good at telling Peter how the dogs he kills are well and efficiently served thereby. Indeed, Mason’s adultery only adds to the distance between the boy and his mother, an architect who has built no relationship with Peter, only with her older son, Edwin, who has left home. It seems that Peter’s father knows what his wife is doing with Mason, but he only implies as much to Peter. No one admits anything to him, and he finally says that he is in “A situation in which my feelings didn’t matter and my words had no meaning.”
Jamie’s secret in “Passengers” opposes his son Tim’s revelation that his wife, Barbara, a cellist, does not want the baby she has conceived, but he does. Jamie does not dare tell him that sex is less about offspring than secrets—in his own case, imagining, when he makes love with his wife, Andrea, an actress in a libidinous and violent film.
The woman who narrates “The Ninth in E Minor” is a young painter, and when she visits her father, she is open with him: She, a bit promiscuous herself, has had a son and is planning on moving in with a photographer, apparently to give the boy a father. Her own father, though, is not so open. Despite his failed promiscuity and his medical problems, he still dreams of repeating the fling he had on drugs with the woman in New Jersey for whom he left the narrator’s mother. This, it turns out, is the secret that helps him manage his life.
In “Timberline,” the secret is an untold story. The protagonist, Henry Borden, is challenged by a cancer victim, Lorna Wolf, to tell him a story. He remembers climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire with his father when he was eight, and how his father was blown off the mountain by a wind but was not killed; his glasses did not even break. Borden does not tell any of this to Wolf because, “If you don’t have a story, there isn’t an end,” meaning that if death is the true end, the story about it does not exist until the end does. Here, only death can tell a secret.
Peter, the restaurant owner in “Are We Pleasing You Tonight?” recalls Tamara Wynn, his lover when he was in Graves Registration in the Service. Tamara died, and he still thinks of her, and of her daughter who looks like her. His secret function is to minister to the memory of the dead. He does this for Tamara...
(The entire section is 2065 words.)