Frederick Busch

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Busch, Frederick 1941–

Busch is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor. His self-professed major concerns in writing are characterization and point of view, and his fiction has been praised for its precise use of language and uncluttered prose style. The basic, elemental aspects of life, particularly family relationships, form the subject matter of much of Busch's fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Richard Elman

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Domestic Particulars is a story of unspectacular martyrdoms, senseless sacrifices, of the endurance of long subway rides that end up nowhere except in front of dimly lighted houses behind shrubbery, of the cold of the marriage bed, and the stoicisms of a depression-minded generation, the specific betrayals of energy and excitement that result from the squandering of lives for caution's sake….

Domestic Particulars is not an exhaustive treatise but a series of primary scenes, rich in incident and feeling, that seem to give the temperature of lives, and show the way they have been turning. Busch, who is one of our finest short story writers, is not ashamed of what his characters talk about and say. If they have any dignity it is because they are allowed to speak out of their feelings. (p. 468)

This novel has many … moments when its characters do things we almost wish for the sake of decorum they would not do, and then we realize that it is the same humanness that made them such victims which has now provided them with the gestures to express their victimization. It is an honest, angry, compassionate work, written with all the specificities of technique of the new novelists, but nowhere simply doing things for the sake of showing off. Domestic Particulars is committed to its strong subject matter, like people in a hostile integration, and to the air and light of particular days in Brooklyn, or on the upper West Side, to the look of the hills at sunset in upper New York State, or the complaining inner voice of Claire as she remembers a friend from her Greenwich Village days….

This is not just another family novel; we do not come away from it feeling reconciled, or at peace with ourselves. What is radical to the work is its insistence on the separateness of these three lives, its painful understanding that so much was self-inflicted in an indifferent world not out of love but lovelessness, its awareness of bitterness and defeats, without redemption, and its sense of the littleness, the pettiness, the meanness of these characters that does not, oddly enough, demean them but gives them whatever stature they may have.

Publication of this work should bring Busch the larger audience he deserves. Of novelists under 40 in this country, he is one of the very few active practitioners who can combine an astonishing use of language with a really first-rate memory; he is brilliant, imaginative, and more often than not, just. (p. 469)

Richard Elman, "Specific Instances of Pain," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 6, 1976, pp. 468-69.

Donald J. Greiner

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[Busch's] first books, I Wanted a Year Without Fall (1971) and Breathing Trouble (1973), will become known as apprentice fiction, books in which he begins his tentative explorations of unspectacular lives surviving small but numbing crises. They are serviceable fictions that will be discussed and analyzed in future years as introductions to what may develop into a significant canon. With Manual Labor (1974) and Domestic Particulars (1976), however, Busch shows his mastery of familial frustration, his control of the sacrifices, misunderstandings, and love which make up the daily routine for most of us. The metaphors are...

(This entire section contains 1154 words.)

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convincing, the reading experience painful, the prose precise yet poetic. (p. 101)

Manual Labor is a novel about rebuilding a marriage, the sheer effort involved in renovating two lives. Physical work and emotional energy are expended, and the toil is exhausting. The title becomes a metaphor which reflects not only the work by Phil and Anne Sorenson to restore and old house but also the labor of bearing children…. What gives the novel its power is that the Sorensons are literally hoping to create their future lives out of the bloody losses of their immediate past….

The distinction between Anne's terror of death [in childbirth] and Phil's fear for the death of their marriage is crucial, one that reflects on their attitudes toward the manual labor. Anne says that the work is a duty; Phil insists that it is for "us." In the opening pages Busch suggests, through the structuring metaphor of renovating the building, that their future together is as precarious as their dilapidated house…. (p. 102)

Following … introductions of pain and loss, Busch turns to the two sustained points of view which structure the novel. Anne's is an interior monologue couched in the form of a never-sent letter to his mother who, she thinks, pressures her for grandchildren. Busch lets her describe her own despair, and the effect is telling. Crazed with fear and grief, she loses the ability even to talk with Phil: "How could we say what couldn't be said?" So she writes letters she will not mail; Phil composes poems he refuses to send out; and their communication drowns in mental anguish and physical loss. The point is that the tension is never overtly stated. It remains, as it were, between the lines, accumulating as the novel progresses. Yet through all, through silence, solitude, and despair, their insistence on living is tenacious. Anne briefly considers and then rejects suicide as something that "sounds like medicine. Something you clean clogged drains with."… She wants order, not further chaos.

Busch narrates not the necessity of anything so melodramatic as physical suicide but the sheer effort involved in recovery from spiritual collapse. He parallels Anne's hesitancy about the manual labor on the house with her fear to take chances with creative literature…. Busch is especially good with little touches of domestic suffering, and we understand that the breakdown in the daily routine chronicles the collapse into a quagmire of pain and discord. Surviving but not living, [Phil and Anne] nevertheless wait for recovery. (pp. 103-04)

Busch encourages our concern for Anne with the sustained monologue; developing the perspective from her point of view, he narrows the distance between reader and narrator and convinces us to sympathize. We realize that instead of reading about a wife indulging in suffering while her husband renovates their marriage, we are witnessing two quiet acts of heroism: her determination not to kill herself and his commitment to showing her how the ordering act of physically rebuilding a house can transfer to the restoration of their lives….

Sitting in a shack following a day of manual labor, [Phil] begins a journal. Anne writes to explain despair, but Phil creates to sustain life. His narration is an act of faith, a way of imposing, even creating order in the midst of their grievous losses. (p. 104)

What makes Phil's point of view so effective is that he struggles as much with the narrative as he does with the marriage. Aware that both are interwoven, he comments directly upon the novel he is composing. Rather than fear literature as Anne does, Phil resolves to create it. (p. 105)

Similar problems face the family in Domestic Particulars. Perhaps the heart of this moving novel can be found in Harry's explanation about "the flesh tearing away, the language less than adequate, the madness of continuing." They hang on because they care. Despite the pain and the misunderstanding, despite all the frustration and death, they continue to live and love. As we read, we follow their efforts to sustain themselves as a family from 1919 to 1976. Some readers may call Domestic Particulars a cycle of tales because the chapters vary points of view and time frames, but the book has the continuities of character, narrative concern, and mood which might not be expected in an unconventional novel. (p. 106)

Busch's touch is so light and yet so sure. Situations which might become maudlin here show up moving and true. Dressing his characters for life, he brings them through domestic particulars to the point where they no longer hope for fulfillment but demand it. How do mother and father adjust to a son who grows up "because families are—write it down, it's a definition—what you finally have to leave?"…

The heroics of hanging on; Busch convinces us to care about these little lives. An omniscient narrator oversees the final two chapters and shows us Harry checking The Book of Fascinating Facts, a childhood gift from his parents, for a comment on "Can Dreams Come True?" Apparently they can, explains the compiler, but Harry is not so sure. Still in search of his memories, he pays a last visit to an old friend of the family to ask, "do you remember my life when I was young?" He has so little, he explains, only a few facts. Mrs. Miriam cannot fill in the missing "it" that he longs for, but she does give him some advice: "It's done and put away and you should leave it…. Leave it where it is."… The end of the novel hints that he does just that. Although ambiguous, the final paragraphs detailing Harry's deliberate motions as he drives away suggest his decision to live not with his ghosts but with himself. (p. 110)

In Manual Labor and Domestic Particulars, Busch expresses the tension between family misery and the desperation to continue living. Where does Frederick Busch go from here?—a question bound to be asked about a thirty-six-year-old author of four books of fiction. Chances are that his narrative voice will change, that his sense of fiction will include other concerns…. What matters, finally, is how Busch's novels confirm that American fiction is alive and well, revitalizing the language while shoring up our lives. (p. 111)

Donald J. Greiner, "After Great Pain: The Fiction of Frederick Busch," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1977. pp. 101-11.

John Romano

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[Something] exciting is going on in Busch's work that isn't going on anywhere else. Some of his virtues are old-fashioned enough: he's a superb storyteller, and he makes up people he cares about greatly. But finally his talent is anomalous, and the nature of his achievement is peculiarly hard to describe.

One way to begin is by taking note of a paradox that virtually rules contemporary taste in the arts. As an afternoon of gallery-going or a week of off-Broadway will show you, the approved formula for a new work, according to this paradoxical law, is that it should contain inverse proportions of emotional intensity and representation. In other words, great intensity is okay, if the art isn't descriptive or realistic or "about" anything real; whereas representational art, even a certain brand of realism, is okay, if its level of feeling is low enough. (p. 23)

So we have this curious divorce of feeling from the things that cause feeling, and the rarest artist, these days, is the one who, like Frederick Busch, is both mimetic and intense, and succeeds at the same time in sounding contemporary. His prose forswears the cool machinery of recent literary styles, as announced plainly on the first page of … I Wanted a Year Without Fall (1971):

Listen to an old-time lay: I am adrift, and no one now can say by whom and by what smoky light and in which acid waters I am going to be found, as Leo found me, once upon a time of night and five flights up off Charles Street, summer ripening too fast for fruit, a sweet and nasty sense of rot already in the air, and on the pavement and in my rooms. I was in underwear and sweating through. I was in darkness on the bed, listening for roaches, or listening for the sound of sweat, or listening for the song that blood sang when I turned my face to the pillow and held it there until I insisted on breath.

What's anti-chic here is that the words don't quite consent to flow; the writing is lyrical but it's awkward, too, mimicking the body's discomfort, the labor of trying to breathe on a summer night that's too hot and still. Effort, labor, breath that comes hard: there's a collection of stories by Busch called Breathing Trouble (1973), and a novel called Manual Labor (1974).

Manual Labor, by the way, is Frederick Busch's best work to date—indeed, it's one of the most powerful contemporary novels I know…. The book is a sort of recitation for three voices, the fetus and its parents, their words almost woozy with pain and grief and loss. But what finally staves off morbidity, and keeps the writing on its feet, is Busch's unshakable specificity of physical imagery—the blood in the linoleum hallway, the "crimson slush"—so that it is not just a ghoulish hallucination of a miscarriage but somehow an actual event, with textures and contours that limit it. Again, the unfashionable synthesis: intensity and realism. (pp. 23-4)

It's significant that Busch, in his verbal onslaughts, wrings an almost bodily response from the reader, because a distinctive mark of his stories is their terribly intelligent concern with what might be called the plight of having a body…. Frederick Busch revives, in drastically reconstructed terms, the old romantic dilemma of being simultaneously, conflictually both spirit and flesh.

A figure that recurs in Busch's work is the man who's so fat he almost can't breathe. In the story called "Breathing Trouble," the fat man drives away his wife and child, whom he loves infernally much, and then stuffs himself with food to assuage his guilt and loneliness: "Do you understand," he says, "that I am being squeezed to death by calories. Another bite and my breathing stops…. Give me enough time, the heart will harden up and turn off-yellow and fall into my stomach and break me in half. Man, thirty years old, crushed by own heart. Too much fat too soon, say M. D.s."… The protagonist of "Breathing Trouble" resembles Harry, the protagonist of "The Trouble with Being Food": big with appetites that he feeds without pleasure, almost literally taut with irony and self-hatred. There's a pent-up-ness about these characters that has something to do with the very aesthetic of Busch's stories, in which strong draughts of emotion are trapped, confined in brief, terse forms—in Busch's own phrase, "like a pattern of explosion caught and kept." Maybe it is true in a general way, as John Crigler says in a study of Faulkner, that the best short stories are over-stuffed, that they show signs of resenting the smallness and insufficiency of their size, and spill over messily in protest; coughing, sweating, and claustrophobic, like Busch's fat men, who are so fleshy that they give off steam, but are not at home in their flesh. For all of the characters in Busch's world, comfort is impossible. They move and speak and write with that excessive, deliberate, and defensive grace which is really the reverse of ease and belonging. Busch's achievement is to have scrutinized, with sympathy and guts and humor, the internal places of such ineluctable discomfort. It's there he's planted the ladders of his art.

As for ["The Trouble with Being Food"], it might prove an unfortunate introduction to this writer, suffering, as it does, from his chief pitfall: he's an indulgent writer, and gives us, as a rule, too much. It's a vice I'm inclined to be merciful toward, because what he gives us too much of is that emotional actuality which most contemporary writers leave us hungry for. But the excess—in this case, an excess of sympathy for a finally repugnant triangle of lovers—muddies the presentation of a potentially dramatic situation. Domestic Particulars, from which the story is taken, describes itself as a "family chronicle," episodes from the lives of three generations of Brooklyn Jews, literate, liberal, and poor. In shaping relationships among them, Busch pursues to an extreme one of the themes of Manual Labor: that one of the tricks of our nature is that we continue to love and need people whom we've ceased to understand, or have never understood, and that a helpless, inarticulate pathos attaches to such bonds. This hurtful impasse is the special provence of Domestic Particulars, and, as usual with Busch, it's the hurt that's most interesting. But the family members in their isolation are too alike within. You don't feel, as you do in the earlier novel, that in changing narrators the writer leaps from one world of consciousness to another, but rather that everyone is trapped in the same downward drag. And the flirtation in Domestic Particulars is not with morbidity, but with self-pity.

Against these reservations should be set the unavoidable sense that Frederick Busch is immensely what the doctor ordered. As a worker with words he is abundantly self-conscious and adept, but the streets are full, alas, of qualified paragraph-makers. His importance, which is already considerable and can be expected to grow, lies elsewhere: he is one of a small party who are resuscitating an ancient use of words, to connect us to our feeling, to refresh our vulnerabilities, to waken in the mind the prospect of an edifying pain. (p. 24)

John Romano, "Frederick Busch: Mimesis and Intensity," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1978 by Richard W. Burgin), February-March, 1978, pp. 23-4.

Nicholas Delbanco

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[The Mutual Friend] is a venturesome novel, a substantial achievement, and it should be widely read. For the author of Manual Labor and Domestic Particulars, this new work represents a change. The previous books were in some sense family documents—intensely personal texts, charged with contemporary discourse and present problems. Busch seemed a kind of poet of claustrophobia. Whether writing of the city or farm, in Brooklyn or New England's hills, he stayed very close to the bone. His characters had Breathing Trouble, as in an early title; he cut tight, constricting circles, and had his people leashed.

Now the circles have enlarged. The Mutual Friend, as its name should suggest, owes a great deal to Charles Dickens. It starts with Dickens in America, on a reading tour, and ends with the end of the 19th century, in a London charity hospital…. Busch's erudition has been put to fruitful use. The scholarship is unobtrusive yet always germane. His habit of disjunction (the stock-in-trade of a short-story writer, perhaps) seems formally appropriate: the novel has six separate units….

Whole sections of the novel are lifted from Dickens; his will is transcribed verbatim, as are swatches of the scenes—Nancy Sykes's murder, for instance—he read to such acclaim….

[The] risk, of course, entails the great original; why should the reader not disregard Busch and turn again to Dickens? (p. 26)

Somehow, however, The Mutual Friend manages to gain from and yield nothing to Our Mutual Friend. This has much to do with the narrative device. Dickens is a ghostly presence in the charity hospital, enduring in remembrance and "written" by Dolby and Moon…. There's a certain archness in these visions, and revisions, and whether it's Dickens or Dolby or Moon seems sometimes just a self-reflexive game. (pp. 26-7)

Yet the whole has resonance. Dickens as "A Man of Parts" has stamped himself indelibly on every page; those who witnessed him cannot forget or exorcise the ghost. Therefore they spell him, in several styles. And the pastiche accumulates, at last, into something reverential: almost as if the unsayable name has been said, the voice from the whirlwind transcribed. Such referents are intentional; the book is about one writer's God….

Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," speaks of the way the present artist must engage the past. There's a vibrant rearranging—a kind of nexus established between those masterpieces that inform our culture, and our culture's need to continue. Such dialectic when successful has a double power: we lose sight neither of our origins nor the notion that art is original. The Mutual Friend seems to me to demonstrate this doubling conjunction—Busch has profited from Dickens, and the reader profits equally.

If an artist's reach is circular, as suggested above, then as his reach and grasp extend we come to be included. The concentric circles that surround this novel are large indeed—implicating by extension the very root of tale-telling: a twice-told story become familiar, subject to interpretation, and all the more welcome for that. The Mutual Friend is first-rate. (p. 27)

Nicholas Delbanco, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 25, 1978.

Roger Sale

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The subject of Frederick Busch's intelligent, careful, often brilliant, but inert novel ["The Mutual Friend"] is Charles Dickens, the driven dying Dickens of 1867–70 as summoned up by Dolby, his tour manager and companion, as he himself is dying 30 years later, a charity case in a Fulham hospital….

It is a serious and scrupulous fiction Mr. Busch has concocted…. There are no elaborate set pieces of Victoriana, no huggermugger "vivid sights and sounds" where we might expect to find Oliver Twist or Pip walking down the street. Nor does Mr. Busch attempt to do a version of the Victorian novel, à la "The French Lieutenant's Woman." This is a contemporary American novel, written by a man who once wrote a book about John Hawkes….

The most striking positive virtue of "The Mutual Friend" is Mr. Busch's way with Dickens's voice, as speaker and occasional narrator. For Mr. Busch to try to make Dickens speak just as he wrote would have been folly, because that would make Mr. Busch both a competitor and a writer of pastiche. But it would have been equally foolish to have tried to imagine Dickens speaking in a way that had nothing to do with the way he wrote. It is a ticklish task, and on the whole Mr. Busch handles it admirably.

Roger Sale, "Not Quite Dickensian," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 9, 1978, p. 10.

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Busch, Frederick (Vol. 166)