Frederick Busch

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Frederick Busch and Miriam Berkley (interview date 30 March 1984)

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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 their young son, hears the voice of an old girlfriend, Rhona Glinsky, calling to him on a Manhattan street. He flashes back on their relationship—especially their relentless pursuit of a supposed Nazi war criminal.

Why this subject now? we ask Busch. “I don't know,” he admits. “I was not raised in any particularly Jewish way, though I had the awareness I was Jewish. It was hard to grow up in the '40s and '50s and '60s and not know you were a Jew; periodically, people might beat you up to remind you. I guess when people hit their 40s they think about things they've not thought about before. I think it was the over-whelming mass of books and movies about the Holocaust—one should legitimately never tire of them, and I don't mean to say I was tired of them, I was burdened by them. I felt there was a worship of death going on in the culture and that there was an intellectual interest and a sort of worshipful zeal in talking about dead Jews in ways that disturbed me. I wanted to see people getting on with being Jewish without worshipping death, even though they as Jews had been enslaved by death, thanks to the Nazis.

“I wrote the book in hopes that I could puzzle a way through to seeing love become stronger than history. Now that is a horrible contest for a Jew; a Jew is supposed to worship history, including the history of the murdering of the six million. So maybe I'm treacherous in this. I don't mean to be—I mean the book very respectfully, and I don't mean to tell people how to think, I don't even mean to tell me how to think, and I don't know what to think. But I suppose I was hoping for something as sappy and direct as the healing powers of love that would enable us to, if not defeat history, at least come to terms with it.”

Busch has been writing fiction for 20 years, after giving up poetry for short stories. (“A little star poet in college,” he realized he was “a bad poet because I didn't know where to end the lines on the right...

(This entire section contains 2404 words.)

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hand side, and found that if I didn't end the lines on purpose but just let them end arbitrarily and kept on talking, I had stories.”) After graduating from Muhlenberg College, he was a Woodrow Wilson fellow at Columbia, ostensibly studying 17th century English poetry. Most of the time, however, he cut classes, spent his fellowship money on beer and paperback books—the works of Malamud, Saroyan, Vance Bourjaily and the English author Frank Tuohy—and wrote stories. When his funds ran out and Columbia refused him more without his commitment toward a Ph.D., he left.

He married Judy, whom he had met at Muhlenberg, and the two lived in Greenwich Village and worked at a variety of jobs which included, for Busch, doing market research, writing for uninspired magazines and teaching English at Baruch College. At night, he sat in the bathroom of their one-room apartment, his typewriter on the toilet seat, himself on the edge of the bathtub, and wrote. During that period, he “got fired a good deal,” because he was “cranky and selfish, confident all the while that it was a matter of minutes before people recognized that Ernest Hemingway was working on 42nd Street in this office building in his new incarnation as me. So I always felt I was too good for what I was doing, which is a terrible way to be.”

Impressed by Colgate on a 1966 visit to his brother, an undergraduate there, he thought college teaching would be an improvement over the work at hand; he's been at Colgate ever since. Early on, he began to publish stories in Transatlantic Review,Quarterly Review of Literature and New American Review. His first novel, written at the age of 22, “was a very bad thing,” and it went unpublished, as did his second. The title of that work, Coldly by the Hand, came from a poem by Robert Nye, who lived in London and to whom he'd written for permission. The two men became friends long distance, and when Busch sent Nye his third novel, I Wanted a Year without Fall, Nye showed it to his publisher, Marion Boyars, who liked it. Boyars published Breathing Trouble, a book of short stories, in 1974, the year that New Directions in the U.S. published his novel Manual Labor. Two years later came his second American publication, Domestic Particulars, a cycle of stories about a single family.

The Mutual Friend, Busch's next novel, was a result of his teaching. In London with a group of Colgate students for a semester's off-campus study, he was searching for a subject when a friend suggested Dickens. Busch, no Dickens fan then, resisted, but he read him again, with growing excitement, and thought, “The man's a genius.” Then he read a biography of Dickens and wondered, “How could anyone have lived with this man? So I thought I would try to answer that question.” He started to write a play about Dickens, but “within a page it turned into a novel.”

New Directions' James Laughlin wanted to publish The Mutual Friend, but told Busch that if he could get more money from “an uptown publisher,” he was to take it “with his blessing.” Harper & Row's Fran McCullough offered five times the advance Laughlin did, and Busch switched publishers. When Harper & Row pronounced his next book, Hardwater Country, “unsuitable,” he went to Knopf. Then, for reasons he doesn't go into, he moved again, to Farrar, Straus, for the next two novels: Rounds (1979) and Take This Man (1981), before finally settling (he hopes) with David R. Godine, whose “witty and incredibly hard-working” publicity director, David Allender, had been trying to recruit him for several years.

Busch acknowledges a major debt to Bill Goodman, his editor at Godine, for the book's present state. “Rhona Glinsky is bewitching and infuriating and funny, and she interests me. Bill agreed with me that she was wonderful, but he thought that Zimmer's wife, Lillian, was a little pallid, couldn't compete with Rhona, and if the book was to work, she would have to compete with Rhona, and that was hard to do. He talked me round into adding many, many pages about Lillian, until—I think it was his intention to make me find out who she really was that she could take a man away from a Rhona Glinsky, and I did—I found out she's wonderful. It was a wonderful tug-of-war, I think, that he led me to see.”

Indeed, redemption by love is not absent from Busch's earlier books, in particular, Take This Man. “Boy, that was a hard book to write! It ended up with the burial by a boy and his mother of her husband and his father, and it killed me to write the end. I was horribly shaken by it. But I felt that that was a novel about a couple who had been together over so many years, driven together by circumstances and staying together because of what had begun as romantic love and ended finally as profound commitment and respect.”

It's not unusual for Busch to find himself moved by his own characters, but this doesn't happen while he's creating them. “When I write, I'm the coldest-hearted bastard in the world. I make children sick, I ruin men's lives, I bully women, and I do it with an absolutely cold heart. When I write it, I don't believe it, I'm living it. I'm an actor speaking his lines except I'm also writing his lines, and I'm thinking … I don't know what I'm thinking, I don't think when I write, I just write. But I suspect what I'm trying to do is be as cunning as possible. Then, when I'm revising it, it shatters me, it breaks me. Then I cry.”

Often Busch doesn't want to let go of his characters. Manual Labor, he says, “started out as a long story, and six months after I had written it I realized I had kept thinking about the characters and would have to find out what became of them. So I wrote the rest of it to find out; it grew 200 pages.” Still not content, he wrote Rounds to follow the fortunes of some of them, and his latest novel, Sometimes I Live in the Country, as yet unpublished, in response to the woman Lizzie Dean, in Rounds.

Very recently, impressed by a TV production of King Lear, with its twin subjects of family life and government, Busch has found himself “attracted to the idea of attempting a novel about the larger world of public events and the smaller, common world of daily living.” What's on his mind is a book dealing with, and set during, the Korean War. Already into the research, he's “even had wild thoughts” of visiting Korea. But he adds, “I hope I don't follow through—I'd much rather go to Paris!”

Writing short stories has helped him as a novelist, Busch feels, and he invokes Hemingway, who wrote short stories as a young man while working up the energy to write a novel, just as one does short sprints before running longer distances. “If you have real talent—which means that you are enough in love with the world to describe it and respond to it—then the most crucial element in your life is energy. I believe that writing is manual labor”—he points to the depression made by his thumb on the space bar of his typewriter—“but also takes psychological energy.” In addition, “short stories have to be the most precise in language and form, and if you learn your lessons from them well, you can write novels with a certain justness and delicacy and aptness of language.”

Before beginning to write, Busch does careful research. For The Mutual Friend he returned to London for a week to study a site important to Dickens. A central character in Rounds is Eli Silver, a pediatrician, who is based on a real-life doctor friend. To prepare for this book, Busch went on actual hospital rounds and joined Silver's prototype in his office practice for many weeks. In addition, he studied Nelson's Pediatrics Handbook,Gray's Anatomy and a wealth of pharmaceutical literature. He also watches and listens to workmen and tradesmen of all kinds. “I always hang around when these men come and work,” says Busch. “First of all, there's so much I don't know and need to know. Also, they're smart and they do stuff that matters. I really admire that. I'm not being romantic—they do things with their hands that produce useful results and make your life happier.”

Fred Busch is pleased when he can, in his writing, “expunge Busch. I get very tired of his prose, I roll around in it all the time.” For this reason he's fond of the Dickens book, and even more so of Sometimes I Live in the Country, about a 13-year-old boy. “I've cut myself out of the book totally, and I've totally served that boy, and I'm very proud of myself.”

That people remark on the harmony between the voice of a character and the time and place in which he or she belongs is to Busch somewhat remarkable, and, despite his gratitude for appreciation, worrisome. “That's our job, isn't it? My mission is to satisfy this insane need to write. But what I hope the books do, once I have satisfied my own itches and cravings, is tell wonderful stories about people who matter to readers, stories that have significance and that are useful and fun. I don't know what there is to write about if you can't write about women and children. I happen to love a number of women and children, and so I write about them perhaps with a lot of enthusiasm. But that's what you're supposed to do.”

Fatherhood, says Busch, which “has profoundly, radically, permanently changed me, I hope for the better,” has been important both for his subject matter—these same women and children—and for the way in which he looks at the world. “Obviously, I'm so impressed with it, I keep on writing about it. I love being a father, I love the boys I'm father to. When you have children, you are offering the world a hostage, as Hemingway said. You're so much more vulnerable to the world as a parent, just as when you become married you're that much more vulnerable. And you become more aware of it, you listen to it, you can't ignore it. As a writer, you have to pay homage to it, you write about the dirt and the earth and the stones and the water, and you have to get it right—it's more than you. That's what happens! Less and less of yourself matters, because there's more and more of it and them.”


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

William H. Pritchard (review date winter 1987)

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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 school bus painted blue was in the side yard. Dogs ran next to the car and barked. A little baby in a shirt and no pants stood on the lawn and watched. The place looked like everyone else who used to live there was dead.

Sometimes it gets too flat, too many sentences beginning with “He,” but Busch has a firmly sympathetic way with his young hero that manages to make something touching of the nervous relationship between father and son, or between Petey and “Miz Bean,” the sort of understanding schoolteacher everyone wants to encounter. The good and bad guys are very apparent—a racist Ku-Kluxer of a clergyman and two evil hunters provide the most notable of heavies—and the good does win out in a storybook finish. But it is such a friendly, intelligent, modest book that a triumph like that feels appropriate.

Principal Works

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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] (letters) 1999

The Night Inspector (novel) 1999

Don't Tell Anyone (short stories) 2000

John Blades (review date 8 February 1987)

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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 illuminating work, casting an inner light on the act of writing, telling how it feels to be a “writer obsessed, a wandering voice in search of a listening ear. … A voice that must tell its story.” This he does in a voice that is highly opinionated, lyric and idiosyncratic, whether he's sharing his personal tribulations or discussing writers he reveres, with Hemingway, Melville, Dickens, Mailer, Arthur Conan Doyle, Reynolds Price and John Hawkes at the head of his list.

At this point, you may ask: Who is Frederick Busch? It's a fair question. Busch does have credentials as a teacher: He's an English professor at Colgate University; more to the point, he is the author of almost a dozen works of fiction, short story collections and novels, the latest of which—Sometimes I Live in the Country—was published last May. Despite high praise from most quarters, Busch has remained, in his own words, “New York's leading upstate obscurantist,” a writer who has never enjoyed “the rank smell of small fashion.”

Even though low sales have qualified him to talk about the downbeat side of being an author, as he so frequently does, Busch cannot help but be uplifting, beginning with his preface, in which he describes how, as a Brooklyn teenager in 1958, he purchased his first “dirty” book: Joyce's Ulysses. In that same vein, the best pieces in this When People Publish are autobiographical. “In the Ossuary,” which opens the book, is made up of lively free associations on libraries; the literary-academic-commercial complex that “endangers … venturesome books”; how [or how not] to weed books from overloaded shelves, and other literary and domestic matters. And the final essay, “The Floating Christmas Tree,” is a joyous recollection of the “real poverty [and] heartbreak” in his struggle to find a voice, as well as a market for his work.

In his extended discussions of other writers, such as Dickens, Conan Doyle and Leslie Epstein, Busch is lively and instructive but not nearly so provocative or so engaging as he is in his more personal chapters. And because several of these critical pieces were written as introductions to books by the authors under consideration, they somehow seem out of context here.

The plain truth is, Busch is at his eloquent best when writing about himself, about the considerable anguish and gratification that come from being a writer. “Writing is the hardest work I know, outside of loving another human being,” he says, early in his book. “While I wish for my fiction to deal adequately with the labors of loving, I hope as hard that these essays may deal to someone's satisfaction with the love involved in writing well.” Long before the end of the book, this is one hope that's been fully realized.

Further Reading

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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): 5.

Grumbach asserts that Busch demonstrates sensitivity and compassion for his characters in Long Way from Home.

Smothers, Bonnie. “Splendid Shorts.” Booklist 97, no. 3 (1 October 2000): 321.

Smothers offers brief reviews of current short-story collections including Don't Tell Anyone.

Wheeler, Emily. “Whodun what?New England Review 14, no. 3 (summer 1992): 233-34.

Wheeler describes the plot of Closing Arguments as complex and ambiguous.

Additional coverage of Busch's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 45, 73, 92; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 10, 18, 47; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 218; and Literature Resource Center.

Frederick Busch and Donald J. Greiner (interview date summer 1988)

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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 family unit, and why, though Brooklyn born, he writes largely about the rural northeast. The interview will be included in Professor Greiner's Domestic Particulars: The Novels of Frederick Busch to be published by the University of South Carolina Press.

[Greiner]: What is your general opinion of contemporary American fiction?

[Busch]: Rich, various, exciting. Few or no major writers—lots of interesting minor writers. There are a lot of writers who get a lot of attention and a lot of writers who don't get a lot of attention and many of them are very good. And I think what's most interesting about American writing now is the sorry state of American criticism and reviewing which stands between a lot of writers and their audience. I don't mean myself—I get a sufficiency of attention—but I do mean the way American writing is being read publicly: it's being read essentially either for the classroom by the professionals or for book review journalism. And I don't think that I see too many useful ways in which writers can come to the attention of a public. It's a time of big money, big reviewing, big book clubs, and lots of small writers. The condition of the writers themselves seems to me to be in opposition to the condition of the review media by which writers normally come to the attention of their readers. In other words, America is unlike England where, if you published a book this weekend, the chances are excellent that the Observer,TLS,The Listener,The Guardian,The Telegraph and a number of other papers would all review you within the same 48 or 72 hours and attention would be paid. So the condition of American letters is therefore in a state of misrepresentation and befuddlement because what we're dealing with is the careers of people who are trying to be “major” critics while the writers continue to do what they have always done—which is to write books, and wait for the dust to settle, and let history sort them out.

Do you think the critics are still looking for a Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway?

Sure. And if you ask they'd probably say, well, there's Bellow, there's Updike, there's Mailer, there's Thomas Pynchon; maybe someone would say Salinger; once they would have said Malamud although I'm afraid his work had fallen off before he died. How about Reynolds Price? People might say Roth; surely, people would say Eudora Welty. The point is these are essentially the same names that would have come up five years ago. And there's something untrue about it now as there was something untrue about it then—all these people are very good writers and there are 250 other very good writers who are either as well known for some things as those other writers, or are living in their shadow. In any case these are probably not the major writers of the century. I have a feeling that once the dust settles I don't know that we're going to have had a major writer since the 40's. I mean today is a time of really terrific work; it's wonderful if you like to read books; but if you like to make pronouncements, it's all very unclear.

To what extent is the dispute about verisimilitude still an issue in contemporary American fiction?

I don't think it's an issue. I think verisimilitude has been dismissed as a useful, usable goal for fiction. I think that people who attempt to achieve it, in other words who are storytellers, are considered by critics who are carving out their careers to be not too useful. I'm looking at a novel by Ward Just. There's first-rate writer who strives for verisimilitude, for tough, sinuous language, for telling stories, for writing about an interesting amalgam in politics and psychology that is perhaps more European than American but that I think is a fascinating goal in fiction; and he would probably be dismissed by some of these critical hacks as just a guy who tries to write about people's lives. Who cares? Whereas to people like me that's the goal, to tell a story, to make a person come alive on the page. I think the debate is over; I think that the drift at least of contemporary academic criticism is far, far away from verisimilitude. The drift of the American reader is, as it always has been, toward it. The storyteller wants to tell the story and the reader wants to be told the story, and I am convinced that that is the goal of the novel, has been the goal of the novel, and will be the goal of the novel.

Do you agree with the proposition that was especially popular about ten years ago that the Latin American novel has surpassed American fiction in terms of what is called “advancing the genre”?

No, not at all. Do you really think that Garcia Marquez, as brilliant as he is, took the novel beyond, say, where Dickens had been. I'm not at all convinced—he does, of course, write a wonderful novel. Puig is fascinating, Cortazar is fascinating, Carlos Fuentes is fascinating, but what they have done is combined their heritage of the folk tale—the peasant story—with education and imagination, and have made what we call magical realism. But is that so far beyond what Issac B. Singer, or Bernard Malamud, or the American father of them all, William Faulkner, did? No, I think it's just another trend in criticism, not a trend in fiction writing.

One of the witty observations about the contemporary American novel is that it suffers from “the Moby-Dick syndrome.” That is, our writers seemed obsessed, either consciously or unconsciously, by the notion of the great American novel, and they often write huge, sprawling, dazzling books. One thinks immediately of Gravity's Rainbow, LETTERS, Mickelsson's Ghosts, The Public Burning, Sophie's Choice. Do you think the elusive goal of “the great American novel” is indeed an issue?

I don't know that it's an issue; I think it's a habit. Americans have always wanted to hit a home run. This is the country that invented the home run. And I suppose this is the country of expansion toward frontiers, beyond frontiers. This is the country of aggrandizement. This is the country of the psychological colonist, and I suppose to that degree the American writer wants to write the Great American Novel—perhaps. I think that Pynchon was not trying to write the Great American Novel in Gravity's Rainbow; I think he was trying to write Gravity's Rainbow. I think that Melville was not trying to write the Great American Novel when he wrote Moby-Dick; he was trying to write the book broiled in hellfire that had haunted and driven him, that, when he finally read Shakespeare carefully and read Hawthorne and was sufficiently crazy and whacked out in his own life, and ready and muscular enough of mind, and obsessed enough, he could write. He finally wrote the book that he was meant to write. But the book that another writer was meant to write might be 150 pages long. I don't know that Styron's Sophie's Choice is his “big book.” Styron tends to write long, thick, discursive novels. I think he's written novels better than Sophie's Choice, that are wonderful and good, but they are not the home run. Just as Mailer's big home run book, Ancient Evenings, was absolutely not the novel he should have written because in his researches about Egypt he found every convenient metaphor he had always wanted. He didn't have to really stretch his notions about the novel and reality. It was what he had been waiting to do and it fitted like a glove. It's wrong for a writer to wear gloves when he works. I suspect that when he wrote Why Are We in Vietnam? Norman Mailer wrote the novel he had been intended to write and that was in fact as fine a novel as one needs to write, and that was Mailer's terrific book. But maybe that book would be called a double or a scratch single because—and finally to come back to what I said at the beginning of this—it's not about (a) critical theory or (b) commercial success. Whenever you talk about a writer and his “success,” you have to talk about how what he has written fits the critical theory of the moment and how what he has written fits the requirements of reviewing media and commercial houses. So that when John Barth published Giles Goat-Boy his reviewer could say, “at last a book that is worthy of our training in Joyce.” Well … who cares about our training in Joyce? What's the book like? This book should not have been written for professors. It should have been written for people who read books, people without theories. And I think that the “home run” book, the “big book,” the so-called “Moby-Dick” book, finally, alas, is nowadays about prevailing critical theories and commercial success. But I want to go further with that: Moby-Dick has lasted as the Great American Novel not only because of its size, and not only because it was the perfect capturing of that American moment, but because it told an ultimate truth about humankind. It's more like Paradise Lost than it is like a book of the moment. It's an eternal statement about the nature of man in his cosmos. And about the nature of American man, secondly. And about the American man of the 19th century in a tertiary way. Just because a book is big and fat and about American doesn't mean it has anything to do with Moby-Dick, in my eyes. And also, has there been a writer since Melville—there have been one or two or three or four—but, really, has there been a writer since Melville who could write that thundering, biblical, poetic prose? I mean, finally, it's the language we keep coming back to. The vision of Ahab is nothing without the language, and that's what that book is about.

You've mentioned Mailer a couple of times. Which writers among those well established do you particularly respect?

Dead or alive?


Well, I respect them all. I like an awful lot of Mailer's stuff. Updike, Roth. I like an awful lot of David Bradley, Richard Bausch, Rosellen Brown, Leslie Epstein, Reynolds Price, Ward Just. I've mentioned to you Richard Russo's book Mohawk and there's a guy named Pearson who writes sort of insane Faulknerian sagas about the modern South. I didn't mention Walker Percy when we talked about established writers, but surely he's terribly important to me and to writing and reading in general. I have a hard time coming up with useful lists. I like to just read and be moved and entertained as it happens.

You've been teaching at Colgate for years. How does teaching affect your concentration as a writer?

Well, when you have to do your preparation for teaching, and I am a very conscientious preparer, you're not writing. So that answer is evident. On the other hand, I would not have read Dickens when I did and as I did if I hadn't been doing it to teach a Colgate group in London. And I would not have prepared so thoroughly as to read Edgar Johnson's two-volume biography on Dickens and would not have gotten hooked on his life and hooked on his work and have written a novel about him and a number of essays about him if not for Colgate and my work. So I guess some of the academic work feeds some of the writing, and surely what I do as a writer, if I'm worth anything at all to Colgate, makes me know more, presumably, about how writing is achieved and what goes on in the text I teach. In certain ways from certain angles different from the view of someone who doesn't write. So I can see the two as mutually beneficial, and, yet, you finally come down to the fact that you're tired and you have only so much energy and that if you are doing what you should as a teacher, your first energies should go to teaching. You have to do what you keep telling your students to do which is to make a choice and live with the consequences. And I make that choice.

You're a writer who happens to teach, then?

I think that has to be the case and I think that's how I'm best for Colgate, in a way. If I were more devoted and in the classroom most of the day and hanging around my office and going to more meetings, I might be a more likable fellow and I might receive more approval from my colleagues—and that would be fun, to get a lot of approval from my colleagues. But, I would not be a good writer, and if I were not a good writer I would not be able to bring whatever is special about my insights to the classroom, and to be of maximum use to my students. So in a way it works out for us all, though you don't win any popularity contests.

You're taught at both the Iowa and the Bennington workshops.

And Columbia's.

And Columbia's. What do you think about creative writing programs in general?

I never took a creative writing course in college, or in graduate school, and so it's hard for me to see what it is like as a student. Once in Iowa I subjected a long story of mine to a workshop experience at the end of the semester and had a bunch of extremely bright, tough young men and women take me apart for three hours. They were merciless and brilliant.

Did they know it was your story?

Yes, I told them. And they were right, and they helped me fix it. I don't know if I ever got the story right but I got it better because of them. You learn a lot. It's harrowing. A number of my very good Colgate students have gone on, and I have suggested Iowa to them, and they have gone there and inevitably the reaction is that the first year is hell and I hate it and I want to go home. And the second year they're sort of on top of it, and they see the limitations of the workshop experience but they appreciate aspects of it. I would guess that the chance to hang around—if you can get to them—a number of really good senior writers is a priceless opportunity. I don't have that opportunity, and I envy those kids being able to walk down the hall and talk to Vance Bourjaily or to James Alan McPherson, or to be with John Leggett. I think that's wonderful. I think, too, the opportunity to be in a community of writers—with all its attendant back-biting and all its politics—nevertheless, not to be alone as a writer is good, because ultimately writers do write alone, and when you can get some company it sort of helps to gird you for the long fight. I think if you have a good teacher in a creative writing class it can be a wonderful and useful experience. I think all too often writers at workshops are not conscientious teachers because they are doing their own work. And even if they're conscientious they're not perhaps sufficiently “present” because they're doing their own work. And that's one of the things that a young writing student has to contend with; I think it's part of your gamble. It's worth taking the gamble, I suspect. I think, too, that many workshops do not select teachers who are writers or writers who are teachers. They simply go for a name and who's available. I know whenever Leslie Epstein wants to hire somebody for Boston University, he calls me up if he doesn't know the person, and he asks, what kind of teacher is this man or woman? And that's the way to pick. So the kids who go to Boston University presumably are meeting not with someone who's only a good writer, but with a good writer who's got some kind of gift as a teacher, whether it's concern, or ability, or merely hours doggedly put in at the office. One way or another, in that situation, the students will get decent or effective teaching. I think a workshop can strive for some happy combination of those two things: good writing and good teaching.

What are the limitations for the students in the workshops?

Well, you bring your own talent, so that's the first limitation: how far your talent goes. How deep your energy runs—energy is the key to writing. Talent you either have or don't, but energy is the ability to work hard hours, to work at the implacable page until it yields something. And to do it over a long enough haul so that you are not exhausted by the forces that stand in opposition to every writer, which is the carelessness of reviewers, the cruelty of publishers, the stupidity of readers and of yourself. I mean, its a long, hard fight and you might as well start learning it in graduate school. And finally I mean there's the obvious piece of realism which is, if you have a graduate degree maybe you can get a job, because you're sure not going to make your money writing unless you're extremely lucky.

Well, that leads into the next question—today's university is yesterday's patron of the arts …


How mixed is that blessing?

It's always good to have money. It's very good not to die of hunger or in debtors' prison. In that sense the blessing is signal. It is nice not to have to live on the streets or in a garret. So that's good. And there are fringe benefits, and occasionally at some universities, even if you are a writer, you're respected.

Like at South Carolina?

Like at South Carolina. And in the case of the universities which support so many writers, you have to contend with the location of the university—do you want to live in Missoula, Montana?—maybe you're a New Yorker and maybe it's good for you to get out to Missoula, Montana, but how good for how long? You have to go where the patron is. You don't get a shipment of money from the patron to go live in Venice and write books. You have to go where the action is. That's one drawback, though I'm very happy about where I ended up. You have to teach according to somebody else's schedule until you get to be a very senior professor when you can have a bit more success in naming your hours. That's important: writing is chemical; it depends on your physiology, when you can do your best work. And sometimes you're not allowed to write when you can do your best work. You have to teach Freshman English when you can do your best work and that's a drawback. On the other hand, compare the alternative. You might be writing advertising copy or pumping gas at the hour when you do your best work, or waiting on tables. So I guess teaching is preferable. The drawback is that you use up your brain cells if you teach hard and teach well and if you spend hours and hours preparing Faulkner with the respect and reverence and insight that you should and then in teaching him right and then in assigning papers and then in grading those papers. There's a lot less time left for writing than most people think.

Did your experiences at Muhlenberg, Columbia, and NYU have much effect on your writing?—the experiences themselves?

Yeah. I got a great education at Muhlenberg. I took mostly required courses for the first couple of years. I worked extremely hard for very demanding professors whose curriculum was conservative in that there was no nonsense about “take what you please, lads and lasses, and see how it ends up.” They said, we want you to know this—learn it. And I had to learn how to study very hard and to read very well, and I did. I met some wonderful teachers. There was the chairman of my department who became the vice-president of the college and the Dean and who is now retired, Harold L. Stenger, Jr. He is the reason I thought to read literature seriously and teach it. “Doc” Kinter taught everything from Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg to Renaissance poetry, say; he was an important force in my becoming a writer. I remember I gave him some poems and he came to me in the student union one day and he sat down and he said, “you can write, Rabbi.”


Yeah. I used to do Stations of the Cross with him—he said, “It'll do you some good, Rabbi.” He was a devout Anglican. He's retired now—both men are. But both men were crucial influences on me as were a number of my other professors there. And it was a small enough college so that I got all the attention I needed. I thought of myself as a writer and that college let me think of myself as a writer. I was lost at Columbia. I was simply too young when I went up there; I was just twenty or twenty-one.

And you went to Columbia to study 17th-century metaphysical poetry?

Yeah. Because, of course, I had studied it with Harold Stenger at Muhlenberg. I was so intimidated by Columbia and so useless at being there that I stayed in my New York apartment and I wrote. And my long poems turned into stories, and I wrote stories and read stories, and I continued my education there. So in a sense it was very good for me. I was at NYU for only six weeks on money that I had borrowed from my parents, which alas I never repaid. And I was there because I thought I should get a doctorate. And clearly I shouldn't, so I quit, and Judy and I were married, and I began a succession of magazine writing jobs. Every experience a writer has is useful. The place where I was most educated was Muhlenberg College.

You grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.


So Midtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village are old stomping grounds, yet most of your fiction is set in small towns and the rural Northeast. How do you account for that?

I don't know. I have some ideas. As I think you and I have said, some of the first novel published, I Wanted a Year without Fall, begins in Greenwich Village, goes to Staten Island, which is the pattern incidentally—New York to Staten Island—of Invisible Mending. Which is also a city book …

With the same Alligator Patrol.

Yeah, that's right. Good for you. I didn't realize that. That was a very important scout patrol for me. Some of the—you will call them chapters, but I will call them stories in Domestic Particulars—are set in the city. I consider that essentially an urban book. And I have written a lot of short stories about city life. But I find a rhythm in my fiction of writing about the city, and then writing about the country, then writing about the city, then writing about the country. But as my life has taken me farther from the city and as my affections have turned toward rural life, I mean my own version of it—I don't want to be out here up to my thighs in manure with hayseed in what's left of my hair; I'd like a good bottle of Chateau Clark and I'd like to contemplate the countryside—I guess I've written a good deal more about living in the country and on a lot of land. I notice from the beginning, though, my impulse was to move my characters from the urban setting I then knew and so wrote about. Of course, a lot of my early stories were about Brooklyn because I was writing about my childhood, and I still return to the Brooklyn of my childhood and still like to write about it. It was quite Edenlike and beautiful, which most people find hard to believe. And very green and lush.

A tree grows in Brooklyn …

There were many, many trees. I find that in my work there is the pattern of moving the characters, at least early on, from the more complicated urban landscape to the more simplified rural area—or Staten Island, which is more bucolic or was—to the more simple landscape. John Hawkes has a phrase. He describes the set in one of his plays as the “pure, white space of psychic activity”—a lovely, lovely description. And I think of that in terms of what I used to try to do in getting characters out to the country and away from the more complex cityscape to achieve a simplicity for psychic activity. I would try to write the fable, or the myth, I think, on the simpler landscape. I was trying to pare away the more complex trappings of verisimilitude and achieve almost a two-dimensional, kind of silhouetted venture on the landscape. That's at least what I saw happening in I Wanted a Year without Fall; hence the use of the Beowulf. Trying to achieve some kind of mythic dimension, epic simplicity. I think that now since I live on and with the kind of land I used to have to run away to, I've adapted and have tried to make a verisimilitudinous fiction that takes place on a land that I no longer see as evasion or escape but that is part of the background of my characters.

Do you feel a symbiotic relationship between your fiction and up-state New York the way that, say, Jim Dickey explains that he needs the South in his work?

Yes, yes! That's one of the reasons I think I shouldn't leave this country, this countryside. My last novel, Sometimes I Live in the Country, a title, by the way I had been trying for years and years to use for a book—this was the right book for it—was in a sense my coming to terms with this land, at last. I mean I have a city person moving on to the land and making it his and being at one with it—grappling with it, but finally coming to some kind of terms with it and his life on it. And I like to think of it now as my own fictive terrain.

What leads you to focus most of your novels on domestic concerns, family trauma?

Well, I don't know what else there is to write about. The family is the basic unit of tragedy and of comedy. If you look at the end of every Shakespeare play that's a comedy, say, you have a clown talking bawdry or a wedding taking place, an allusion to the coming together of family. I believe that behind that wedding in mythic terms is the coming together of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother, the male and female element, the yin and yang, the totality of life. And I believe that the mythic stuff is really behind everything we write. It is certainly what drives the comedies and tragedies in fiction which are verisimilitudinous reenactments of those rituals about death and fertility and life—I mean life with a capital L—the generating force. The family is the basic unit of all of those interplays. Whether it is the male and female about to produce a child in imitation of the earth, about to manifest its fecundity, or whether it's someone like Oedipus bringing himself and his nation-state and his family into ruin. Oedipus Rex we think of as a drama, a ritual enactment, a tragedy of huge dramatic proportions. Sometimes we forget that Oedipus Rex is a political play in the most profound sense; it's about the politics within the family. And Oedipus before he was a king and a politician and then a blind seer—Oedipus was first a son and then a husband and then a father. I mean, what else do you write about except the family? I've mentioned Ward Just, and I've mentioned Ward Just because he knows American politics and he knows the American political family and he is able to write, in effect, a contemporary Julius Caesar. And I am very much interested in stuff that deals with American politics in a way other than the basic New York '30s Partisan Review way, which is to talk about earnest Jewish intellectuals coming to grips with the realities of communism. Ward Just deals with the American Protestant animal prowling Washington, and he is fascinating in that respect. But even he, in his new book The American Ambassador, which sets out to deal with terrorism and world politics, comes down to the family. A writer in whom I'm very interested is Alberto Moravia, who has always written about the family in one way or another, has also always written about politics. He's combined the two in A Time of Desecration, a fascinating and sensational novel, where the drama of family politics—and sexual politics—reflects contemporary political events. Finally, what we are about is the family. Who we love begins with the family, what we need begins with the family, and where we go has to do with the family. The family becomes our metaphor one way or another, whether it's Jimmy Carter embracing us all and telling us we're his family, or Lyndon Johnson telling Harlem they're his family, or Ronald Reagan spanking Central America and telling them they've been his naughty children and telling them his world family's misbehaving. Family becomes our central metaphor. And I suppose that is why I have been writing what I have. The other thing probably has to do with my own relationship with my own family and my observation of middle-class American life. I don't know if what I'm saying now occurs to me because it is my way of defending what I have chosen to write or have been driven to write. I don't know and I can't tell you, to be honest with you.

Reading your canon I was struck by the dead children in Manual Labor, the troubled sons in Domestic Particulars, Take This Man and Sometimes I Live in the Country, and Sam who slashes his stuffed animals in Invisible Mending. Do these hurt children have any special significance?

Children, next to puppy dogs and kittens, are the most vulnerable things in the world and I guess I'm writing about vulnerable people—what else is there to write about? We're all vulnerable, and one of the things fiction explores is our vulnerability, and the best manifestations of hurt adults is the hurt child that they were. I suppose that's one reason. I love children, I like children, I think about children—I'm probably half child. Some of the writers I admire very much are writers who dwell upon childness. Dickens was, and probably still remains, the best at evoking the nightmare world of the child, the horror of being the victim. There, now: politics comes into it when you talk about children, the horror of being the victim, and all of a sudden are you talking about politics and the plays of power, or are you talking about the family? You see, they intersect. When I talk about Hemingway I end up, as you and I did yesterday, talking about how he is at once the adolescent crying that he's hurt and the slightly older adolescent saying, no, I didn't mean it, I'm really not hurt, but look at my wound anyway, just in case. Well, that's the child. And being a child is a matter of contentions of power, using your power, using your weakness as a lever so as not to be hurt more, to get what you want; and being an adult is using your power more responsibly, presumably, but acknowledging the fact that you are finally as an adult in a cruel reality, in a harsh world, nothing much more than a child in many ways. We're all very small.

I occasionally hear the prose rhythms of John Hawkes in Manual Labor, especially the descriptions of the wind and the sea, the insects and the heat. How fair is that observation?

I'm trying to think of when I wrote Manual Labor.

It came out in '74.

So I wrote it in '72, '73, and I read John Hawkes first in '65. I guess that's possible. I'm certainly moved and impressed—the first book that I read by Jack Hawkes was Second Skin, and nobody has written better prose rhythms than are in Second Skin, at least in my mind, for my money. So I would hope that they have affected me. It certainly was not conscious.

Why do you think Manual Labor teaches so well—not just from the professor's point of view but from the student's point of view?

Well, I think it's a young book. I've always been immature and a late bloomer and I forget how old I was when I wrote that book, but I was probably younger than I should have been. I think Phil and Annie are an attractive couple, I think that their love is a nice love, that it's a good relationship, it's interesting. Their weakness and their strengths and the enduring centrality of their marriage are important—I'm a very married man and worship my state of marriage, not in any abstract way—and that attitude no doubt found its way into the book. Annie possessed me as a character, and she's one of the few characters I've written almost as though I were taking notes. I'd go up to my office everyday—for some reason I was writing that book at Colgate in my office in the month of January, I remember, when there are not as many students around—and I'd go up there every morning and I'd write her as if I were taking notes. Type it right out. And when I was finished with her section and I knew that it was done, I was shattered because it was like having an affair with someone; and then it was over. I mean I knew I would never be that way with that woman. I've been that way with other women in my books, but that woman was gone for me then. I was deep inside of her, or she was deep inside of me, or something and I felt the book coming together too. It stopped coming together after that, in many ways, I'm afraid. Maybe female students, I don't know if this is true …

They respond to Annie.

… they respond to Annie because she's living on the inside in that second section of the book where her husband can't get to her, and the novel is about being who you are undercover, about being an alien presence in your own life, in the life of your own household. And I was able to get in there for a while.

Do you consider Manual Labor more of a breakthrough for you than I Wanted a Year without Fall?

A breakthrough as a work of fiction or in public terms?

In public terms. The first book is always so important.

Well, I couldn't get I Wanted a Year without Fall published in America, nor could my British publisher, Marian Boyars, so maybe in the public sense it was a break. For James Laughlin was wonderful about publishing Manual Labor—over the objection, by the way, of the man who was then his editor-in-chief, although with the approval of the man who is now his editor-in-chief, Peter Glassgold. Mr. Laughlin was terribly encouraging, and that was important to me—the support of one of the greatest men in publishing and in letters of our time as far as I'm concerned. That man's approval meant everything. Some of Manual Labor is pretty good writing too. It's a book I believed in far more than I Wanted a Year without Fall, I suppose. I wrote the first third of Manual Labor as a long story, as a novella. And I tried to publish it and could not publish it anywhere in America for money. I finally gave it to Joe David Bellamy, at, I think it was called the Falcon

It's called the Falcon. What college was that?

Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania. Joe David Bellamy founded Fiction International and he was then editing this magazine and I saw an issue, I guess, and sent it to him. He published it and I was so happy to see it in print. It had been turned down by the good periodicals that paid.

Was that the first movement of the novel—this story?

Yeah. And I loved it, and it was terribly important to me.

It included the thumb, the lost thumb?

Sure did. That, by the way, was my hymn to Moby-Dick. I thought of the Rachel looking for her lost child when I thought of Phil looking for his lost thumb—outrageous, isn't it? And I put the story away and I mean I had nothing else to do with it. And about six months later I looked up and I said to Judy, “I wonder how Phil and Annie are?” And she said, “Who in hell are Phil and Annie?” And I realized that I had better get back to work because those people had become living presences for me. Then I wrote Annie's section. And then I was faced with the need to make a story out of it, to make a novel out of it, and that is for me where the novel fails. I resolved it with Abe, a deus ex machina, a Jew in the attic of an old Maine church, sort of an interesting possibility in that character, but he would have worked only if he had somehow been present in the book from the start. And I had him present in the book from the start only as a noise, or a light—a ghost in the church. And I failed to pull those elements together. Two thirds of it is pretty good, though.

I discuss Domestic Particulars as a novel instead of a cycle of stories. How do you define it?

I used to think of it as a seamless chronicle. I thought then that it would be more honest to call it a book of stories. They are finally neither. They are episodes in the life of a family. I continue to list it under the rubric, stories. I had some stories from my second book, published only in England, and called Breathing Trouble, and I took some of those and adapted them for this book. I then wrote a number of stories to pick up the chronology and the circumstances of the characters in this book. So in effect I was writing chapters. So let's compromise and call it episodes in a chronicle. It's a book about the same people told in chronological order, broken into sequences, and it sure sounds like chapters in a novel now that you mention it.

Did you have any special models for Claire and Mac Miller?

Special models—you mean physical people I patterned the book …

Don't name any names, but are they an amalgam of people you knew in the Midwood section, or people you knew at Columbia? Mac ends up teaching at Columbia.

I think I had him up there because I remembered Columbia well and wanted to write about it. I had some models in mind for aspects of their lives, but they grew independently once the book began to move and I began to add sections to it. I began to invent rather wildly. None of my uncles and aunts, or Judy's, and neither of our parents taught at Columbia or anything like that.

Their experiences seem in many ways typical of the intellectual who came up through the political and moral fervor of the '30s …

It's very much a New York book in that way.

And then suddenly they got scared in the '50s under McCarthy, especially Mac. In the scene of burning the books on a birthday …

Kind of nice, isn't it?


I owe that title, by the way, “The Three-Legged Race,” to my friend, Terrence DesPres. We were talking at some point about some episode in my youth, and he said, well, that sounds like a three-legged race. And I thought, what a brilliant metaphor for a marriage that couldn't quite make it and yet there were these people tied together for life. They could succeed if they cooperated wonderfully, but if they faltered for an instant they were on their faces. Yeah, I like that scene, and that experience is one of the things that makes me very eager to do the work that I have now embarked on in writing this script for Home Box Office.

About Roy Cohn?

About Roy Cohn, who was Joe McCarthy's lawyer. It's an opportunity to go back to that time and see it from the side of the guys who were scaring the people.

Is the scene in Domestic Particulars—that sad moment when Mac and Claire drive all those miles to Harry's graduation and he's embarrassed—

Is that “Twenty-one Thousand and Change”?

Yeah. And he leaves to go to a party and Mac tracks him down around the lake—is that the Muhlenberg campus?

No. There is a lake near Colgate. And a lot of students lived out there and at one time my brother Eric rented a house near the lake. He's a painter and was out there painting after he graduated, I think. And, again here's my taking a city person out into the more mythic landscape, having him and his son do this sort of insane, competitive baptism together—and farewell—at the same time. I wrote that story because once upon a time Judy and I were driving past the Colgate Inn, looking at parents who'd either come up for their children's graduation or had come up to drop off freshmen. And Judy burst into tears, she was so moved. And this was long before our children were anywhere near college age. I mean, then it was twenty-one thousand and change for four years. Now it's sixteen thousand for one. I wrote that story really for Judy, to commemorate how moved she was by the dreadful and beautiful and happy moment that was going on. It was a birth moment, in effect, for the parents, you see, that separation.

The Mutual Friend is the most unexpected book in your canon. Anyone who's read all your work would not have bet on The Mutual Friend. You mentioned a moment ago taking a group of students to England. Is that the genesis of the novel, the fact that you had to teach Dickens and that led to reading Edgar Johnson? Dickens had not been a favorite of yours particularly—I mean we all love Great Expectations, but …

No, we don't. I mean, I worship it now. But I guess I had never read Dickens in college. I just never took British novel courses. I changed my major from political science to English in college and was therefore always a year behind my mates, trying to catch up with my required courses. Never studied the British novel at Columbia, and maybe read something by Dickens in high school. So I came to Dickens as a total novice, as a total idiot, as a total ignorant man; and reading Edgar Johnson after having read a number of Dickens novels, I remember I said to myself, “How is it possible to have lived with this man?” And I thought, “Well, here's the model of the kind of man I must be and the kind of man and woman many of my colleagues must be. People so immersed in their writing that they may be absolute bastards and destructive in the home without knowing how much harm they do.” And that seemed to me interesting to explore. Dickens was a man who did so many public readings, and I was thinking of this at a time when there was still a lot of money in the culture for public readings, and writers were criss-crossing campuses, myself included. It seemed to me an interesting analogue. And then when I read in Johnson's book that Dickens had been stranded at Utica, and I was feeling stranded in Utica myself, or near Utica, which is only fifty or sixty miles from here, it was just an interesting convergence of elements. I was in-between books, I was interested in doing something new, and I thought, “Right, I'll do a play. I'll write a play—I've always wanted to write a play—I'll do a play about Dickens, what an interesting idea.” And I sat down and I wrote the first set of stage directions and I said, “The stage is his mind.” And I looked up and I said, “This ain't going to be a play; it's going to be a novel,” and I started to write the novel. But, as I have said to you, in a certain way The Mutual Friend does speak to certain of my books because it is divided into the voices mostly of his family, whether professional or domestic. And it is as much about his home life as his literary life.

What led you to create the character Moon?

Well, Moon—I've noticed a curious pattern in my books. I hope it's not seen as patronizing. I hope that people who know me and respect me don't think of it that way. I've got a lot of Black characters and Hispanic characters in my work because I'm an American and formerly an urban man and a man who loves the variousness of his country. I love my country, I suppose, and one of the things I love about it is the fact that we're not all pink and Semitic like me. That we're all different kinds of people. And I guess I've been writing fiction I consider to be reflective of the world I live in in a small way. And so there are Black and Hispanic men and women in books of mine that are essentially about white, middle-class people. And I suppose that was my impulse in putting Moon, who was Indian, who received his name from the English. That's something I noticed in Dickens: people are always being renamed by the controlling element; people's names are taken away. Moon is the product of a colonial empire. He is a victim, and what I love about him in that book is that he spends his life up to the ankles and wrists in other people's pus and bowel movements, but at the end gets hold of George Dolby's book in which George Dolby has remade the great maker, Charles Dickens, and Moon's last words are, “I will make changes.” Am I talking about the emerging third world? Perhaps. But I am surely talking about the underdog through imagination changing the nature of reality. In many ways that was my most—I suppose you would say experimental—novel; or I suppose some running dog of critical jargon would call it “post-modern.”

What's the background of Lizzie Bean in Rounds? You once told me you were writing and you had the L. L. Bean catalogue on the desk, but that doesn't necessarily lead to this tough lady.

There is a woman whom I taught named Elizabeth Bien. She was here many years ago at Colgate as a student of mine in a seminar on the '20s. She was beautiful and talented, and everybody who read the book at Colgate assumed that I had been in love with Elizabeth Bien in my class. Well, she was a sweet person, but, no, that is not the origin of Lizzie Bean. The L. L. Bean catalogue is the source of her name. A lot of people tell me her character reflects that of my wife Judy, but then again a lot of people tell me that all the women in my books are aspects of the character of my wife Judy, and there is no doubt that is in a large sense true.


Resilient, feisty, bright, attractive. Lizzie Bean—where does she come from?—that's all I know about Lizzie Bean. Lizzie Bean comes out of no place into Rounds, and she stayed with me. I had to write about her again in Sometimes I Live in the Country because I had not—I felt I had used her and abused her, like the guys in the book.

You had to rescue her from the local store?

That's right. From the Price Chopper in Bennington, Vermont.

You told me in October of 1980 that Take This Man was part of a story you had tried to tell for years. Can you elaborate on that?

Yes; it's a very simple story and it's a tribute to the heroism of Judy's mother, Helen Burroughs. Judy was a little girl, about two or three years old. Helen was living in Philadelphia with her extended family, sort of taking care of them all. Helen is a nurse, and Al Burroughs, Judy's father, was a Marine. He had been serving with the Sea Bees in the Pacific—and then—he was in San Diego or somewhere on the west coast. And word came, rumors came, suspicion came, maybe even from Al himself, that a huge massing of men and materials was going on for an invasion of Japan. What's interesting is that my father was on the east coast while all these rumors were floating, and it had been thought that his 10th Mountain Division was going to be part of that first strike.

Your father fought in Italy?

Yes. And Helen Burroughs, hearing that her husband, whom she loved dearly, might be sent to die in the invasion of Japan, grabbed all the ration coupons she could, and little Judy Burroughs, plonked her in the front of their '37 Dodge or whatever it was, and set off for the West Coast through a snowstorm, through hail …

And no interstate highways.

No interstate highways, and with lousy tires, guys making eyes at her in hotel restaurants, polio scares, all of that. And she got through. And he didn't go, and it had always been to me a beautiful story about love and the tremendous, heroic adventure of a brave woman. And I had always wanted to write it. And Judy's father, before he died, had talked about it, those times, and Judy's mother had talked about it. I began to do some research. I love to do research for my novels, and I set out to write, and as usual I couldn't keep my yap shut, so the story became more complicated and more complicated, and what you see is what I did to that simple, lovely story. I baroqued it to death.

Well, you also told me that Take This Man was your most difficult novel to write.

It certainly was.

Do you still feel that way?

Yeah, it was hard as hell. I don't know why. I guess because I simply wanted to write a seventy-page story and be done with it, and yet at the same time wanted to make a long novel out of it. The book had originally been wrapped in a sixty-page frame which, with the advice of my editor at Farrar Straus, over my kicking and screaming, we took out.

But you told me later that the editor was right.

She was right. Her name was Pat Strachan and she's a wonderful editor and she was absolutely right. I gave her a really cruel time over it, but she was right.

What was your reaction to the charge against Invisible Mending of—your phrase—“Semitic insufficiency?”

Well, of course, I was warned not to read the review in the Times Book Review and so I didn't.

The one by Norma Rosen?

Yeah, I didn't read it. I heard it was disappointing and I didn't want to get involved in feeling any worse than I did.

It's actually not as bad as you've been led …

I'm not going to read it, though. There had been a lot of talk that that book was going to go a long way, and that review effectively stopped it, I think. I suppose in one way I was trying to engage the idea of Jewish self-consciousness. That is to say, the consciousness of oneself as a Jew in a post-Holocaust world. It interested me a little bit but not totally. And I certainly did not grapple with that philosophical dilemma. I am not a philosophical writer. I haven't the brains and I haven't the interest to be. But I thought I had written about some people that I had thought about and felt about and made up pretty convincingly. I thought I had dealt with some notions of bigotry from both sides of the Semitic fence. And finally I dismissed those charges. I think it's a pretty good novel. I meant it to be a funny book, but not enough people talked about the humor. I think it is kind of funny at some points. I think Rhona is a pretty good character. I think there were some great moments in there. One tends to fail more than he succeeds as a novelist, almost as a matter of course.

One of the fascinating scenes for me is when Zimmer and Rhona visit Rhona's parents in the parents' apartment in Queens. Could you comment on that? That's a painful scene where they're sitting around the table.

I think it's some of my best writing.

Yeah, with the mother.

Well, I can tell you that the deepest experience I have with Queens, with the borough of Queens—aside from the fact that a man named Ed Owre, a wonderful artist, had a studio in Long Island City where Judy and I went once—I was dating a girl named Bobbie who lived with her very lovely, thin, widowed mother in Queens. I think I had more of a crush on the mother than on Bobbie now that I think of it. I don't know anything about Queens, and I don't know any children of Holocaust survivors, I don't think. I've never known these people and I've never had any experience like that. It was purely invented and I'm pleased about that. I plucked them out of my own sympathies and affinities and meditations on the event and its effects. And they were part of my effort in the book to keep myself honest, to be true to the horror of the Holocaust while trying to write something funny and moving about people who were wrong, from every direction, in their responses to the Holocaust. And this couple was the manifestation, I think, of my conscience, of the real effect of the real event on actual seeming people. The other thing I did, all the time that I wrote the book, was to keep a poem—the poem is called “Death Fugue” and it's by Paul Celan, which is about the killing of the Jews in the camps. I simply kept it on the wall in front of me as I wrote the book because it is for me one of the most powerful rhythmic incantations about the Holocaust. And I made myself read it and think about it as I read. I've certainly read a lot about the Holocaust, and thought about it, of course, as any civilized human being has. But I kept it there because there was the bleakest, most horrible music to it, and I wanted to remember that behind what I thought might be funny and pithy and interesting and a good story ought to be this blood black music about the real horror itself.

What interested me in the scene was the husband, that is, Rhona's father, the combination of frustration with and love of his wife who was a victim of the camps.

I loved that man's patience. And that was—I'm glad you liked that—I had forgotten about that. I like those people too.

I take it, then, that not much in Invisible Mending is based on personal experience at all?

Well, every book you write is based on personal experience.

Well, yes. But the fact that you said you didn't know any children of Holocaust survivors.

Ah, no, no. I grew up with a lot of Jewish kids, and grew up as a Jewish kid, and I grew up as the kid whose Semitic insufficiency did get him alienated from his Jewish mates. I did go to Muhlenberg College, which was a Lutheran college, and I did get beaten as a Jew.

That's phenomenal!

And so, being ostracized by Jewish kids for not being Jewish and beaten up by Lutheran kids for being Jewish, I learned sort of that everybody's capable of being a shit.

Fascism is an undercurrent in Invisible Mending. Was that the transition to Sometimes I Live in the Country? I'm thinking of from Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan. At the end of Invisible Mending Lillian mentions the Klan to Zimmer.

I don't know. I've always been sort of politically minded in that sense, and I've always thought about the bullies of the world. And like most writers I range from mildly to very paranoic, depending on the wind currents. And I simply think about those things, I always have. I used to get hate calls from the Klan in college in response to some of my newspaper columns. One was from South Carolina. I wrote something about Eichman and his kidnapping and mentioned that while we're worrying about him we might think about what the Klan was doing in the South, and they called to let me know what they thought. I did not think of that as an intentional connective at all. I just care about those things. I hate bullies.

But the Klan is a presence near where you live now?

Yes. Upstate New York is hospitable to that kind of sad, undernourished, deprived hatred because a lot of upstate New York is tough living. And a lot of the people are sad, undernourished, and full of hate because their lives aren't going well. I think that this stony soil supports that crop.

What's Petey's problem in Sometimes I Live in the Country? Is it a combination of psychological and geographical displacement?


I mean the opening scene in that novel …

I stole that from Graham Greene, from Greene's essay on how he tried to commit suicide—it stayed with me and I wanted to write about it. And I've never appreciated Greene's existential explanation for why he, his rewriting of his life, for why he tried to do that. And I saw a very sad boy, and I wanted to write about him and that seemed to me a good image. Petey's geographically, physically, displaced of course, and kids hate that. And I wrote about that at a time that we yanked our kids out of the small town that we had lived in for twelve years and moved up here into the middle of no place.

From Poolville?

Yeah. But more important to me was how the physical displacement became a metaphor for the interior displacement in Petey's soul. His father has taken him away from his mother without telling Petey that his mother doesn't know. Petey thinks that she agreed to give him up. And so he feels abandoned, and I guess I was trying to deal with that sense in children, that fear of abandonment, which I think children never lose and express still when they're adults.

Hansel and Gretel.

Exactly. Which is maybe the basic myth. I've written a story about that. Petey can't figure out why his mother would throw him out like that. And I think a lot of kids in divorces must feel that way, one way or another. I'm not a child of divorce, but I've certainly known enough of them. He feels bereft. He's in a nightmare world, and, as I've said, that is one of the aspects of Dickens that has always interested me: the small child's terror. And here's a kid who's just the right age to be both a small child in terror and a victim of it and almost a grown-up.

He's thirteen?

Yeah, right on the edge—is there a more difficult time in life? And it's compounded for him. And I was very interested in the relationship between him and his father which strikes me as a very lovely one. One in which there are very few words.

Is it fair to say that Petey becomes the child that Lizzie Bean gave up?

He sure tries to. I love the scene where she gives him the gift of knowledge about her life.

She gives up the child in Rounds?


And she finds Petey …

And she tells him, “I once did this, I have to live with this, I want you to have this knowledge, this power over my life, it's a loving gift to you. The truth.” It's like perhaps an American Indian confessing his actual spiritual name to someone, if he would; I guess he wouldn't, though. It's analogous to that, though—giving up the name of one's soul as a loving favor. And Petey's immediate response is, Am I that kid? Could I possibly be that kid? And he says rather wistfully, Could we check it out? And I just love that.

In the last twenty years you've created many, many characters. And you told me once that some of your novels are difficult to write because you create so many characters for them. Can you tell me your favorites among your characters? Annie, surely?

Annie … Lizzie Bean; maybe the mother in Take This Man, Ellen, the red-headed woman who becomes the mother of the boy. I like them a lot.

Three women.

Well, I like women a lot. I like Petey. At the very beginning of my work I was writing stories about a boy named Hootey who wore glasses and blinked a lot and was troubled. And I think maybe Hootey became Petey. I ought to say that a lot of the characters I like were born in my stories, were and are in my stories, and that I consider my stories integral to my novels. And one reason I like to write stories is that you can finish them more easily than novels, sometimes. Because when I'm not writing novels I can still be writing. It's a beautiful form, and I hope that they are not totally lost sight of as a very important source of psychic nutrition to me as a writer. They feed into the novels. There is a crucial and indivisible relationship to the novels, I feel. Let's see, other characters I love. I liked the father, by the way.

Which father?

In Sometimes I Live in the Country. I think his clumsiness and violence and all of his mistakes as a father are mine. And I think I was sort of, when I wrote that book, I think maybe I was saying to my sons Ben and Nick, I know how I've screwed up, guys, but I still love you. They've both been very decent about forgiving me.

What's the background of Rhona?

I grew up with a girl named Rhona Richmen. She was beautiful, European in ancestry. One of her parents seemed foreign to me, her mother—maybe her mother was Swiss or German. And she was this very lithe, strong, sweet, funny girl who I guess I had a crush on, off and on, and she was my friend when we were eight or nine or so. Then she moved away. Rhona was a great ball player. She was a better ball player than I was—a better athlete. I always liked her and I've always liked the name Rhona and I guess that was sort of my tribute to her—and the beautiful Savarese girls and all the girls of my block in Brooklyn—to have a character whose name was hers. And as I have told you, Rhona in the novel is physically modeled after a woman I knew in college who was just sexy and …

And just always moving forward?

Always moving forward—just a masterfully handsome woman who was a year or two ahead of me at Muhlenberg. In addition, Rhona is of course that kind of psychology about Jewishness in America that I was trying to deal with. So she's an amalgam of all those things.

Which one novel do you have special affection for? I'm not asking you to name your best novel or your worst novel.

Well, I guess Take This Man is the runt of the litter. It sold about four copies. It was cruelly reviewed, by someone who doesn't write fiction, who was carelessly commissioned to review it in The Times. It was the hardest to write, I think. And it is one way or another about Judy's parents, who are very special to me. It enabled me to go back in my research and in my thinking to the period of World War II, which is a time I'm very sentimental about because I'm a product of it. And maybe that novel—whose ending, by the way, I think awfully good: I like the prose at the end, I must confess—and the scattering of the ashes, and the final obscene comedy of the kid getting the ashes in his mouth; I think that somehow that and the prose of it have a lot to do with what my work is about, one way or another.

Almost every commentator, almost every reviewer, applauds the ending.

Is that true? Well, I haven't read all the reviews. So I guess, Take This Man is up there.

“Special affection.” John Updike talks about writing for a boy somewhere in Kansas. Do you have an ideal audience in mind when you write?

I was once asked that, and I said, yes, and I hadn't known that I did. And I said something like this: She's sitting, drinking good coffee near a good wood stove or a fireplace in a nice house someplace, or an apartment. And she's reading my book, whatever book it is, and she puts it down and she cocks her head and there are tears in her eyes.

Specifically, what can you tell us about the work you're completing now?

My hands are still dripping with blood from a book that I will probably call Absent Friends that will be a collection of stories, maybe eight or ten short stories and one novella, one very long story about the Korean War. It's work that goes back to maybe 1984. I don't think anything earlier than that. And it's the stories I like that I've written since Too Late American Boyhood Blues. I'm very engaged, as I've said, in writing stories and story collections. I am thinking very seriously, and have been making notes on, and have written a chapter of, a new novel. I don't want to say too much about it.

What about the Roy Cohn project?

I've been doing, as you know, some writing on filmscripts—both as a way to make a little money and because I've always wanted to write drama. I've always wanted to write a play. I'm learning. I've been working on these two projects with a producer named Stuart Millar. Stuart is an independent producer who commissioned me to write a film, or try to write a film, of my novel Rounds. We have just finished the first draft of a filmscript called Closing Arguments: The Life and Death of Roy Cohn. And that is commissioned by Home Box Office. It's about the last days of Roy Cohn, who is a very complex character, who seemed to be destroyed when McCarthy was destroyed. He retreated to New York like Satan falling out of Heaven, and he popped up again at Club 21 dining with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and making a fortune, and owing the IRS seven million dollars in back taxes, and dating Barbara Walters, and being a friend of Andy Warhol, and getting Christmas cards from the Reagans, and dying of AIDS. The man is a very complex American 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. And of course, that takes me back to the story “The Three-Legged Race.” I'm very interested in that period. In addition, I'm going to be writing another script for consideration by CBS. They have commissioned me to do a very interesting and sweet thriller that Stuart and I are co-writing, and I probably shouldn't divulge too much about it, but it has a lot to do with kids, little babies. And I can be found daily at this desk doing business, nevertheless, as usual, and trying to make fiction.

Do you have anything you can tell us generally about the direction you see your work going in the next four or five years?

My children are grown and growing. Ben is as of 1987, this summer, 18[frac12], and is going to enter Vassar as a freshman next year. Nick is, as of this moment, 14[frac12], and is going to be a freshman in high school next year. So both of my babies are very, very large people all of a sudden, and I should not be surprised if I did not end up writing stuff about … Well, let me put it this way. The first novel I wrote, the first full novel I wrote, was called Coldly by the Hand. It was about my experience in college and about these two professors I loved. It was not a very good book at all, and fortunately it was never published. And all of a sudden it seems to me I might be back at the point where I'm writing stories about little boys growing up and away and going to college again. It seems to me the cycle's swinging full 'round. I suppose that might be in the offing. I hope not, for my sons' sake, but you never know. In a way I'm going to be writing the same stuff I've always been writing. I just hope to be writing it better. I want to tell stories and I think and I hope that I'm getting better at doing that.

George Garrett (review date summer 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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 Melville, Hemingway and Hawkes, Leslie Epstein, Reynolds Price, and Busch and Busch … and Busch. No harm there. It is good and bright and provocative stuff, including “Practical Love,” an account of sixteen popular magazines, with specific concentration on the fiction published for September 1983. A little out-of-date for here and now, but why should we quibble? The book ends with a first-rate personal essay, “The Floating Christmas Tree,” which has a good deal to do with publishing history, Busch's and other people's, and even offers brief encounters with the likes of Ted Solotaroff and Gordon Lish. It is not a bad book and probably ought to have been called The Floating Christmas Tree. By its very existence it tells us one thing about publishing, in case we had not noticed—that it looks as though university presses and small presses are going to have to be the ones to publish most personal and literary essays, as well as poetry and short fiction by good and accomplished writers who are slightly less than household names in literary households. (With this in mind I call your attention to one of my favorite parts of the book—the blurb by Stanley Lindberg, which identifies Busch as “a fiction writer who has earned significant prizes for his craft.” Presumably this remark will distinguish Busch from the interchangeable mass of writers who earn insignificant prizes for their sullen art or craft.)

Richard Eder (review date 28 May 1989)

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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 social wreckage: the devastation of a younger generation. The narrator is a teacher in a rural district whose job is to give lessons to children unable to attend school.

His first visit is to Myrna, a 12-year-old in an advanced state of pregnancy. He talks briefly with her mother, worried but unquestioningly loyal. She'd been pregnant at about the same age, she recalls; she and her husband will take care of the baby so Myrna can go back to being a little girl. And the baby's father?

“No, they're too young. He'll have to live with his own mommy and daddy.” It is the kind of quiet phrase that Busch is master of; one with a scream hidden in it, a scream for a world of lost children. Myrna waves politely as the teacher leaves.

The visit to Leslie is even more rending. A fearful overdose of pills has put her permanently in an intensive care unit, unable to speak and barely to move. She communicates by scrawling on an “Invisible Pad.”

“How's the spider?” he asks, his customary joking reference to the web of tubes that keeps her alive. “Not spider fly,” she writes. “Love U.” When he tells her she must keep up her work, she scrawls “Why?” So she can go to college, he says. “Bologna,” she writes. Minutes later, though, she adds, “What college?” And, just before he leaves, “Kiss.”

The narrator's tone, level and angry, keeps the sorrow of such a story in unmoving focus. Leslie is the all-but-unbearable climax; the third visit is a mournful passage down from it. It is to the narrator's son, arrested for vandalism and facing the prospect of a work camp.

At the end, we hear the question: What have we come to?—but it is framed in the children's gestures: Myrna's wave, Leslie's “Love U” and the son's frightened “Dad?”

Not all the stories are as good as “Name the Name,” which I think will become a classic. Several are wispy vignettes of disappointment and frustration. But the tone is rarely less than authentic, and Busch's individual sensibilities are almost always linked to some larger social theme.

In “Orbits,” the isolation between the generations is strikingly told with a visit by a middle-aged couple to the wife's aged parents. They are well off and in reasonable health, but they have shrunk inside their pleasant house. Death is not far away; the old man, once a charming and successful businessman, has put his most amusing recollections on tapes. The four sit on the porch at night, listening to this taped immortality.

Busch's dramatizing gives his distances life and power. Sometimes he takes dramatic shortcuts, piling on the hypocrisy or clownishness of his hypocrites and clowns. In “Ralph the Duck,” the satisfying come-uppance of a college security guard against a snobbish and lecherous professor becomes a little thinner because of the shortcuts.

It is a wry and wiry story, nonetheless, and it begins with one of the splendid bits of scene-setting that Busch is so good at. The guard is beginning his day, badly:

I woke up at 5:25 because the dog was vomiting. I carried 75 pounds of heaving golden retriever to the door and poured him onto the silver, moonlit snow. “Good boy,” I said because he'd done his only trick.

There is another hint of caricature in “From the New World,” but it is no more than a quirk in an otherwise magisterial and richly textured story. (“Rich” is a word that invariably comes up in connection with Busch's writing, but it is a tense and disciplined richness.)

The daughter and the estranged son of a wealthy, domineering lawyer come home after his death to settle his and their affairs. The son, a film maker, brings with him the wife who was the subject of the estrangement. She is black, strong and splendid. Her splendor—a mix of wit, warmth and steel—contrasts with the pinched snobbery of the sister. (Here, perhaps, is the touch of caricature.)

Over a long night, all the angers and buried pain of a cold family are made to come out. At the end, the son overcomes sorrow and compunction with the help of his wife; they sneak away before daybreak. The sister, her knots barely loosened, watches from the window, a prisoner still.

There are other memorable stories in the collection; in particular, “North,” which tells gracefully of the efforts of a shop attendant in a small town to escape a meaningless marriage and the male tyranny of her boss.

Busch writes of a general decay of custom and humanity with a fierce particularity. His characters are actors in the best sense of the word. The lift of a shoulder, the lilt or fury of a voice, chain us to his melancholy themes and release us from them at the same time.

Fred Shafer (review date 19 November 1989)

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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 the possibility of a future together.

Their prospects do not seem good. Set in the countryside described in Thomas Hardy's novels, the book is filled with images of doomed relationships and lives. Many of Busch's scenes take place in settings prominent in Hardy—Salisbury Plain, the cathedral, Stonehenge—reminding us of characters who were undermined by defects in their backgrounds and personal histories.

Hardy regarded fate as inescapable, Hilary says, because it came from within oneself. “No matter what the people in Hardy's books do, they're supposed to do it, you see. It always turns out they've fled their own character, but their true selves catch up with them, and they do what they think they want to do, and all along it's been what they couldn't help but do.”

This warning hovers over Peter as he learns firsthand about the darkness in his won history. In agony he listens to vivid accounts of the POW camp as told by a survivor, retired Sergeant-Major Fox, who has become Hilary's guardian. Centering on the heroic sacrifices made by Hilary's father, his stories invariably return to the cowardice of Peter's father.

Hilary wants nothing to do with these stories, which she has heard since childhood. In her mind, she has fled the identity assigned to her by history, and she wants Peter to do the same. “Our hero chose how to die and that was that,” she says. “And your father didn't do it, and you surely didn't do it.”

Usually resilient and strong, Hilary breaks down only once, when out of uncertainty for their future, she inflicts violence on Peter. It is a disturbing moment, but one that carries their relationship to a further level of sympathy and trust.

The end of this novel must reveal whether or not Hilary and Peter can form a lasting relationship, shedding the burdens of their past lives. But Busch's answer depends on a series of lurid actions committed by another character—one who lacks the depth of the protagonists and whose behavior is so contrived that the responses of Hilary and Peter seem scarcely credible.

It is unusual for Busch to bring his characters that far and then cease to plausibly develop them. His other novels and stories are marked by a willingness to give characters room to emerge and grow, with plots taking shape in accord with the insights that are revealed. Hilary and Peter may belong in that kind of story. Perhaps their relationship is too lively and real to be contained within a novel dominated by ideas of predetermination and fate.

War Babies reveals much that is good about Busch's work—his sensitivity and warmth, his ability to describe people and places, his ear for subtleties of dialogue. If Hilary and Peter struggle against the occasional impositions of plot, that is because Busch has made them so real that they cannot be suppressed, even by their creator.

Richard Eder (review date 25 February 1990)

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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 known.”

In a wonderful display of timid purposefulness, Harry barges in, kindles fire out of Catherine's initial reluctance, reclaims the love of Catherine's two sons and passively squeezes Carter right out of the house. He will give up his job as a senator's aide; he will free-lance and write poetry; he will fit in with the life Catherine has set up for herself, and help her work her vegetable garden.

As we wait to see what will come of all this, there is a splendid liveliness en route. Few writers could match the portraits of Harry and Catherine; we are like sensors attached to their breath, medullas and heartbeats. At their best, they are portraits in action.

Harry's charge, of course, is the supreme action, and the book is strongest in its first part. We are told of his previous efforts to be with Catherine. The first lasted for months, but Catherine, free of a sadistic husband and with two children to rear, could not take the commitment.

The second, briefer, was triggered by a postcard giving Harry her new address. Harry crash-dieted before going to see her. It is a nice detail, but its real strength lies in the fact that Randy, Catherine's oldest son—who has always insisted that Harry was the right man—reminds her of it.

The new charge, the final charge, consists of two attempts, in fact, and they are all awkwardness. Harry is as loaded down with worry as Alice's White Knight, but he stays on his horse. He is all but paralyzed with fear of being rebuffed. “How can you love a woman who scares you? How on the other hand can you love one who can't?” he asks himself. Entirely unsure of his welcome—when he'd phoned, he'd spoken only to Randy—he parks in the driveway and broods:

Here I am naked in your gunsight, sweating in your gravel drive, looking no doubt like the last traveling salesman in America with nothing to sell except his dazed and rumpled self.

There is the ordeal of sitting down to dinner with Catherine and Carter, of breaking through her deliberately social manner, of breaking through Carter's initial suspicious politeness to an outright confrontation. Embarrassment is more grievous than fear, absurdity a greater ordeal than danger.

In a series of highly charged but wonderfully exact scenes, Catherine's veneer of stiffness is pierced not so much by anything Harry does as by her own longing. As for Carter, his air of male strength and competence is another veneer. He aspires, from a background of deprivation, to gentility; he makes a point of knowing his wines. Instead of throwing Harry out, he—after a comically muted face-off—walks out himself. Victory lies in not budging.

Carter will figure in another defeat, told in a subplot. He has won, and staked a season's income on, a contract to asphalt the parking lot of a local mall. The site, it turns out, was once a burial ground for blacks in the days of the Underground Railroad. Local conservationists successfully oppose the construction. Harry had suggested the controversy as an opportunity for his senator to get involved, and as an excuse to travel north. Now, not wanting to hurt Carter further, he tries for a compromise, but it is too late.

The theme has its own interest, but it links awkwardly with the principal story; it feels like an interruption. We want to know what will happen to Harry and Catherine.

With Harry's quest more or less successfully concluded, there now comes the question of holding onto it. In the later chapters, the focus swings to Catherine's painful struggle between wanting a lover and a companion for middle age and beyond, and her vital need for independence.

Interspersed among scenes of domestic contentment are others in which Catherine works tenaciously to get her garden stripped before the frost, sometimes going out at night to work by moonlight. Harry helps, but it is like a test, not so much of him as of her. How does she feel having him there?

The garden scenes are written with the ferocity of combat. And the fierceness, the gritty detail and the desperate need of solitude are evoked even more harshly when Catherine goes out repeatedly to split wood for the winter, refusing help even though her hands bleed.

The writing here, as throughout, is powerful and precise. But I find the extremity of the gardening and wood-chopping too raw and too heavily signifying a means to mark Catherine's struggle, especially considering the control and subtlety of so much else. There is, as well, a feeling of bogging down as the duel inside Catherine is recounted with an emotional detail that feels overrich and overnourished, particularly since the essential action dwindles down to a matter of will-she, won't-she?

Busch has written of love between modern woman at her best—both woman and woman warrior—and the man who seems made to be with her. It ought to work. And, he seems to say, it can't work. Catherine wants Harry as much as she can, but she wants air more; air will win out. The message—that if you are truly your own woman, even a manly, tender, utterly respectful man with such extras as passion, wit, originality and a small but huggable potbelly may not fit—is not really anti-feminist. But it is very mournful.

Tom Wilhelmus (review date spring 1990)

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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. And it is this refusal to give in to recrimination and despair that is the book's most characteristic feature. Therefore, while the world contains teachers who betray their students, nursing home parents who no longer know their children, sisters who haven't been home for some years, adulterous moms and dads, wives who get taken hostage in Beirut, and mothers who commit suicide, it also contains people who care. In “Ralph the Duck,” a college security guard, no intellectual but no fool, courageously saves the life of a co-ed on a freezing night after a drug overdose. The story “In Foreign Tongues” describes a therapy group in which Ouida, Boris, Solly, and the narrator discover they don't always have to feel lonely even though “this is the city. This is where people always feel lonely.” We can only wonder how Busch can stick so exclusively to a single theme and yet make his stories so seamless and his characters so sharply delineated. Perhaps it is because of his facility, like Raymond Carver's, to look on foolishness and pain and call them human.

In this capacity he not so much contrasts Peter Matthiessen's concern over our haplessly ambiguous moral situation but complements it and makes it well. Now that I think about it, that may be the best reason for lining books up together while we read. Susan Sontag once stated that we needed “an approach to single books of fiction which doesn't slight the fact that they exist in dialogue with each other.” I agree, even if the only venue for that dialogue is the reader's mind.

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 25 April 1990)

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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 love Carter. But she doesn't trust Harry. He left her abruptly 12 long years ago. She's gotten used to her independence. She runs a gallery, does some corporate art consulting, raises her boys, chops her own wood, tends her vegetable garden, and keeps Carter on a short apron string. She's an attractive fortysomething and should be played by Candice Bergen in the movie.

She can be a tease, though. Busch tests the vision of the modern woman with subtle affection. Catherine is a Madame Bovary of the '90s. Both Carter and Harry are afraid to impose on her. She calls the shots. At one point Harry, explaining why his senator sent him up, says, “It's probably national politics. … If the senator gets involved, it is.” Then, without missing a beat, he adds, referring to their involvement, “Catherine, this is politics.”

Busch is a keen observer and notes the analogies between politics and sex, and the interconnections between gardening, chopping wood, cooking, fishing, raising boys, and Catherine's other activities.

There's a scene (the novel is full of memorable scenes) when Harry and Catherine, wrapped in sweaters and old, cracked, yellow slickers, harvest vegetables by moonlight against the first frost. Catherine works without pause “on her hands and knees in the almost freezing soil, studying the round dark bell peppers, the long lighter frying peppers, and when she found them, no matter her haste, she turned the vegetables gently while she pulled, as if she were unscrewing them.”

When Catherine discovers that Harry no longer writes poetry, has in effect switched from poetry to political rhetoric (lies), she becomes angry, first at him, then, pages later, at herself. It takes a while for her to let Harry help her chop firewood. She bathes her blistered hands in salt water, having read an article about boxing in Sports Illustrated.

Carter, the odd man out, is, in many ways, like Catherine. But his own house is an empty, dusty shell; at home with Catherine, he's fastidious. Rejected by his mother and his wife, Carter is eventually rejected again, though Catherine insists that he's rejecting himself.

Like Catherine and Harry, Carter becomes wiser by the end of the novel, and does something to clear his conscience of the parking lot affair.

Does Harry win Catherine's hand in marriage? Does he want it? One measure of their possible progress is that they begin to talk to each other in a direct manner, at Catherine's insistence. Busch makes us feel how difficult it is for Harry to do this. It's a comic theme but no less moving for that.

Just as Carter and Harry are under Catherine's spell, we are under Busch's spell. Like Catherine, Busch asks us to take a stand, to root one way or the other. The novel is carefully poised, so ethically scrupulous, that we are literally left to figure it for ourselves. This troubling story won't end unless we say so.

At one point early in the novel, Catherine slaps Harry hard, then tells him he's almost too sentimental to live. As Busch describes it, and as Harry comes to feel, that slap was like the one applied to the posterior of a just-born baby, slapping it into breathing. Reading Harry & Catherine can be like that.

Blended with all sorts of human and natural weather, luscious and salty as a sun-ripened tomato, Harry & Catherine is a rare treat. Enjoy!

Donald J. Greiner (essay date autumn 1990)

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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, War Babies (1989) and Harry and Catherine (1990), confirm what is now a celebrated career. Harry and Catherine have intrigued Busch for nearly two decades. They first appeared in his work in 1976; in Domestic Particulars (where, by the way, Catherine is spelled with a K), they are strangely lonely lovers on the edge of middle age: sullen Harry watches his weight and clings to Katherine in order to break out of his isolation, while independent Katherine raises her boys and resents Harry's intrusion, even though she loves him. Eight years later with the short story “The News” (Too Late American Boyhood Blues, 1984), Busch caught up once more with his sporadically separated couple and listened as they tried to talk their way back toward love. In Harry and Catherine he reunites these absent friends in an impressive account of the difficulties of adult relationships.

Picking up Busch's latest novel, readers familiar with his achievement will recall Harry and Catherine's effort to touch one another in “The News.” Very much aware that Harry both longs for family and looks for love, Katherine tells him—with patience and care—that she is a divorced woman, that she does not want “to get married anymore.” Harry's response sets the tone for Busch's chronicling of their long-standing affair in the novel: “I'm really not the kind of man that a lot of women live with. Marry. Get old with. Die next to.” This self-awareness does not help him; although he knows the hardness of the truth, he prefers the promise of the lie. In Harry and Catherine he returns to Catherine to “get old with.”

He does not succeed. What concerns Busch is not the inevitability of the failure but the stubbornness of the pursuit, the sheer need to make contact with the people who matter in one's life. The delicacy of the need, the way it shows itself in the little moments of the day, is established in the opening pages: Catherine, long divorced and confidently skilled at raising her teenaged boys, looks at her son's cheek and wonders who taught him how to shave. Not her former husband—he has been gone fourteen years. Not the other men in her life—none of them stayed long enough to get that close to the boys. So it had to be Harry. When Harry phones to say that he is “in the neighborhood,” Busch sets in motion a novel that explores the tenacity of memory and the difficulty of validating a past love affair in present circumstances. Absence is presence in Catherine's relationship with Harry. So long as he is absent, he remains with her. But when he returns—when he is “in the neighborhood”—his presence causes problems. At first glance Harry and Catherine seems to describe only the traditional triangle of two men vying for one woman, but Busch's insight into the pressures of middle age allows him to develop the novel around the more significant—and difficult—question of how to reconcile love and independence. One suspects immediately that Harry would willingly trade independence for love. One also senses that Catherine would do so only with great reluctance.

Busch's characterization of Catherine is splendid. How, one asks, can he understand so much about women? He shows that, for Catherine, the strain between former lover Harry and current lover Carter reflects the sibling rivalry between her teenaged sons; that males are territorial but that Catherine occasionally “acts like territory”; and that the kitchen is the center of the home for a family living six miles from the nearest town in upstate New York. More importantly, he shows that when Catherine closes her bedroom door she is signaling to the males—lovers and sons—her demand for privacy. Like many single parents, Catherine realizes that she must juggle her own desires and her sons' needs. Busch brings a level of sophistication to the ancient tale of the love triangle when he differentiates the boys' identities, develops them into full-fledged characters, and then watches as they inadvertently put pressure on Catherine by expressing their fondness for Harry: “He taught us how to do some first things.” He taught Catherine, too: overweight, restless, needful Harry showed her how to love, but his requirements are now so great that she is unsure she can survive the lessons anymore.

In Harry and Catherine, Busch portrays a domestic particular that has become commonplace in contemporary America: the single parent. Without polemic, without the jargon of the sociologist or the statistics of the social worker, Busch describes Catherine stumbling and coping with pressures that a society of traditional families has not prepared her for, and he describes her with patience and insight. As Busch's title suggests, the social problem he observes is a matter not simply of gender but also of individuals.

Technique supports theme in Harry and Catherine, which is neither a novel of post-modern complexity like The Mutual Friend (1978)—with its interplay of tale and teller, voice and word—nor one of experimental realism like Invisible Mending—with its comic manipulation of time and tone. Rather, Busch's most recent book is for the most part traditional realism. Equally skilled at writing from the female or male perspective, as were William Dean Howells and Henry James before him, Busch renders the particulars of home and work with such realistic precision that the characters' conversations about the events and emotions of the day both set the scene and tell the tale. One example: when Catherine quietly comments to a son that “women need company,” she is neither distancing herself from feminism nor rationalizing her commitments to Harry and Carter. She is merely balancing her teenaged boy's unspoken desire to be included with her urge to fulfill the self. If, Busch asks with an ear attuned to the home-bred murmurs of the day, a spouse with whom one may talk out problems is no longer available, then who does help one ease the common burdens of the quotidian?

The answer may be no one. Seeing Carter's stare on learning that her son has invited Harry to dinner, Catherine “resents his silent scrutiny—anyone's.” One of the successes of Harry and Catherine is Busch's understanding of the contemporary woman's need simultaneously to reach out and to hold back, to seek companionship and to define the self. Surrounded by males in her own house, a microcosm of the female's social contract, Catherine is a post-feminist woman learning how to give and receive love without denying the demands of her own identity. Harry's advantage over Carter is that he recognizes Catherine's need. Driving back into her life, for instance, he recalls their previous attempt at love (“The News”) as the time when she “almost let” him stay. Catherine's time is hers, and her boys', and only she can decide when she will share it.

The complication in Harry's life is Carter, the other man. One suspects that he was Busch's problem too: how does an author write convincingly about the third person in a love story? From the moment one reads the title Harry and Catherine, one's sympathies are with the vulnerable former couple, the middle-aged lovers whose on-again, off-again affair signals their desire to love and their hesitation to commit. Carter, one thinks, is nothing but the foil. Such is not the case, however. Writing from the female point of view is a difficult task for a male writer, but a similar challenge is the characterization of the interloper. To Busch's credit, Carter enters the novel with the reader's resentment and leaves with the reader's sympathy.

He is not easy to like. With his business suit and city shoes, his “incipient sneer” and love of power, Carter comes across as male strength and prerogative, the hard-edged opposite of rumpled, huggable Harry in khakis and sneakers. Even Carter's occupation suggests force, action—he builds parking lots with heavy equipment, construction gangs, gravel, blacktop. He is uneasy with Catherine's boys and snobbish about wine. He is not, the boys recognize immediately, Harry. However, Busch develops not melodrama but character, and his insights into adult relationships show the vulnerability beneath the surface, the loss beneath the love. Carter's strength, like Harry's generosity, is inextricably mixed with longing and need. The reader who would respond fairly must play the part of Catherine, who has lived with both. And laughed with both—Busch's humor easily wards off sentimentality: “Carter looked at Harry the way most people watch their dentists as they line the drill bits up.”

Aware that Harry is the “most hesitant brave man” she has ever known, and that Carter has difficulty relaxing even when he is fishing, Catherine looks at the men in her life and recognizes the roles that society traditionally asks women to accept: wife, mother, homemaker, nurturer, confessor. Busch poses an interesting question: whether the presence of so many men with their various demands and expectations paradoxically enhances the contemporary woman's individuality by requiring that she define her own space. Catherine's occupation as an art dealer is one thing, a sign to the public of her independence, but her position in her house is quite another; it is by far the more significant to her private sense of self. Men eat at her table, use her bathroom, and sleep in her bed. Her willingness to have them there while simultaneously resisting the power of their presence is her guarantee that she will not be absent from herself. “You do not,” she remembers as she counters an urge to pick up the telephone, “call your boy in college when you're feeling middle-aged and a touch discouraged by life.” The problem, of course, is that males require from females guarantees that women are now unwilling to make. Harry and Catherine illustrates that one does not have to write about apocalypse and angst to communicate tension and fear. Gender issues establish the frame, but the heart of this fine novel is the hesitant dialogue, the feelings trying to find shape in words, that Harry, Catherine, and Carter must share as they awkwardly struggle to act like adults in front of teenaged boys who watch them to learn how to act like adults.

Busch does all this without pyrotechnic display, without fanfare, without showing off. Detailing the points of view of the three protagonists, he narrows the narrative distance between reader and character and thus generates sympathy for these flawed people living their unspectacular lives. The initiated reader will note the skill beneath the deceptively calm surface, the balance of points of view, the different voices assigned to characters facing similar problems. Carter stumbling through his dark, dirty house while berating himself for his jealousy and fear; Harry grinning in his burgeoning fat while conceding to himself that his role as innocent interloper is an act; Catherine welcoming the attention while persuading herself that she loves “her bed, her comforter, her room”: all three characters become individuals through Busch's artful manipulation of words, his commitment to create people one will recognize, men and women like oneself. Readers of Harry and Catherine are so likely to be caught up in the complexity of story that only on finishing the novel would they appreciate how the tale is told.

The tale that Busch tells is, finally, about what he calls “the uselessness of language” in the presence of love. Using words with care and respect, he simultaneously suggests their inadequacy. One of Carter's former lovers says to him, “Have you been told? You expect too much of women.” Similarly, Harry says to Catherine about her sons, “You love them so hard.” And Catherine listens to Harry struggling to explain his longing for family, his need to be part of something “indivisible.” He used to shape words to write poems; now he manipulates words to write speeches. What is not said in these conversations is more painful than what is spoken. In a novel of delicately paced dialogue, Busch shows that a mature response to love is possible only when one understands the silence between the words. The last word in the novel—Sure—is unspoken.

War Babies is strikingly different from Harry and Catherine. Busch probes the violent underside of love and history in this short novel, investigating insidious connections between the recent past and the immediate present, between war and peace, and between betrayal and commitment. Looming in the background of War Babies is the almost-forgotten tragedy known as the Korean War, a savage battle of opposing cultures and races that seemed finally to be absorbed by the cold war policies that caused it. Always the meticulous observer of domestic tension, Busch examines not the war itself but the effect on two of its children. The American Peter Santore may love the English woman Hilary Pennels, but the ghosts of their fathers lurk too close to the surface for love to neutralize the fallout from treason, the evidence that Peter's father turned traitor and indirectly caused the death of Hilary's father when both were incarcerated in a Chinese POW camp.

War Babies is a story of betrayal, but Busch's interests lie far beyond the melodrama of battlefields and prisons. Using the murky history of one incident in the Korean War as a frame, he imagines a small domestic crisis that surfaces thirty years later. An attorney by trade, Santore inquires into the probability that his American father victimized an English ally. Although Peter and Hilary are unacquainted until he arrives in England to investigate his father's past, they quickly become deeply entwined, each acting as both victim and victimizer of the other. Despite sexual commitment and the promise of love, they betray each other with a facility that can only be a reflection of the past.

The irony of Busch's resonant title is thus quiet but punishing. One suspects from the first page, when Santore announces his need to travel to the cathedral city of Salisbury, that Busch will play out his small tragedy in Thomas Hardy country. Implacable fate, that harsh disregarder of personal desire and the primary force in Hardy's best fiction, sears the characters in War Babies as deeply as those in Tess. Long the chronicler of the neighborhoods of New York City (Domestic Particulars,Invisible Mending) and the depleted hamlets of upstate New York (Rounds, 1979; Sometimes I Live in the Country, 1986), Busch's use of Hardy territory is not as unexpected as it might appear. From September 1970 through February 1971, Busch lived near East Winterslow, a small town overlooking Salisbury Plain, in a cottage rented from a woman named Hilary. Stonehenge, whose mystical structure figures prominently in War Babies, was nearby. Busch foreshadowed a significant event in the novel when, at the conclusion of an essay about his stay in England entitled “The Mont Blanc Pen” (The Seattle Review, Fall 1985), he wrote: “And Stonehenge now is surrounded by scolding signs, by fences and by gates, and nobody's baby can dance on the stones.” To dance on the stones is to proclaim one's freedom, something the Busch of War Babies and the Hardy of Tess doubt exists.

Busch's choice of first-person narration for War Babies intensifies the impact of Peter's claustrophobic obsession to walk the narrow corridors of his father's hidden past, just as his use of Hardyesque fate undermines Peter's confidence that he can maintain the balance between personal impulse and objective truth. Santore finds the truth, all right, but not so much about the two fathers as about himself. Busch shows with psychological precision how Peter loses the discipline that his training as a lawyer has led him to depend on. Busch's authorial manipulation of his characters is a metaphor for fate's manipulation of its victims.

War Babies brings, then, a new tone to the Busch canon. Most of his novels dissect domestic tragedy while celebrating love and humor and the heroism of hanging on. All the hallmarks of his considerable skill are evident in War Babies—the eye for detail, the psychological realism, the intuition about middle-aged love, the commitment to character and dialogue, the stylish prose—but the affirmation of human resiliency is darkly shaded. Peter and Hilary may toast their dead fathers as absent friends, but at the end of War Babies they are irrevocably absent from each other.

Guilt, Busch shows, is the underside of love. At the beginning of his journey into history, Peter knows that to pursue his father's ghost is to disturb his mother's peace: “What can I do to help you? Didn't I tell you everything I knew? Baby, I only knew the guy four years outa my life.” But Peter suffers the uneasiness of uncertainty, the relentless need to make a whole from the shattered pieces of his past. When he ignores his mother's blunt remark that “guilt's for the Jews and the Germans. Never touch it,” and then flies to England, he already knows that his quest is not for what he ironically calls “the best of times.” The allusion is to the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities; Dickens is Busch's favorite novelist, and the phrase underscores Peter's father's failure to fulfill the Dickensian role of giving his life for another.

Busch is especially good at directing tension away from the father's betrayal and toward the son's pursuit. Peter realizes that his mission is pointless, that because of his sense of guilt he merely feels the need to spend a few hours in the same town with the daughter of a hero who died as a result of his father's duplicity. What Peter does not understand, however, and what Busch develops in order to spring the trap of fate, is that one cannot disturb the deceptively placid surface of the past without exposing oneself to unexpected turmoil in the present. The turmoil is immediately stirred up in what may be the only questionable moment in this tightly constructed novel, despite the allusions to life's Hardyesque ironies: the first woman Peter notices in Salisbury turns out to be Hilary.

More important, though neither Peter nor the reader understands the significance at the time, is that the older man with Hilary will become the instrument of fate. A survivor of the same Chinese POW camp that held Peter's and Hilary's fathers, Fox has carried his military bearing, his fury, his demand for retribution out of the wastes of Korea and onto the plain of Salisbury. For Fox, the trek is not far. Some readers might complain that Busch forces the hangover of war on the peace of England when he refers to the testing of artillery at Porter Downs and to such wartime tearjerkers as the film Waterloo Bridge when Peter and Hilary first speak, but Busch uses these references to foreshadow Fox's insistence on what William Styron once called “the neverendingness of war.” The reader understands immediately what Peter learns slowly: that Santore's “mission of ignorant need” indirectly exacerbates old wounds as surely as does Fox's frontal assault.

Long a witness to the difficulty of maintaining attachments amid the pressures of the daily routine, Busch examines in War Babies more sinister effects of the conflict than in Take This Man (1981)—where the fallout from World War II seals a decades-long affair in love, if not in marriage. Fate is less generous in War Babies, where Busch shows how the compulsion to use others neutralizes the commitment to nurture. Conceding his erotic attraction to Hilary, Peter is always aware that he will “labor to use her as well,” not for sex—though there is that also—but for his curious notion of a benign vengeance. One sympathizes with Peter as Busch's first-person narration closes the distance between reader and storyteller. Yet one perceives what Peter cannot admit: that in uncovering what he thinks is the truth about a traitor, he plans to tarnish the hero too.

Fox guards the tomb. Committed to surviving by always refighting the war, Fox is Busch's most extraordinary character, a man of complex psychological astuteness and physical strength approached in the Busch canon only by the Charles Dickens character in The Mutual Friend and Zimmer in Invisible Mending. Mythologizing what Hilary terms—with a mixture of irony and respect when referring to her father—“our bloody hero and his bloody ancient war,” Fox never stops reminding Hilary of valor, of brave, beaten POWs who resisted the Chinese and Koreans, of starving dogs that ate the bodies of Fox's fallen comrades. Hilary clearly sees the many-tunneled trap of her relationship with Fox: “I can't decide whether he wants to be my father or to take down me drawers and flop me onto the bed and fill me full of lead.” Peter feels the same conflicting impulses. Although he does not commemorate the horrors of the Korean War as Fox does, he reopens the same wounds. His queries about betrayal amount to duplicity. To get the story of Hilary's father's death, he trades on her need for love. Busch quietly shows how Hilary's quip becomes Peter's fate: “Are you in love with death?” When they first embrace, they are conscious of “the stare of the dead.”

Nowhere else in Busch's work do the dead infringe on the living with such grimness, not even in Manual Labor (1974) where lost children splinter adult lives. Fox is the reason for the change of emphasis, for the eerie sense of dread that Busch finds on the Salisbury Plain. Despite discipline and strength Fox exudes decay, as illustrated by his perpetually runny eyes, his rotting teeth, his foul breath, all incurable symptoms of the malnutrition he endured while a prisoner of war. Insisting that Hilary be what she defines sarcastically as “one of the Order of Infinite Chastity on Account of Korea,” he inhibits her independence by divorcing sex from creativity, which he squashes in his warped notion of honoring her father, and demanding the sterility of unceasing loss. Busch's contrast is nicely measured: Peter's life seems ruined because of a paucity of information about the betrayal, Hilary's because of a surfeit. In Hardy's world the two war babies would deserve both each other and the drama of their attendant fate, but Busch's world is more complicated because of Fox. Fox so molds Hilary's life in the present with the pain of the past that she literally speaks in his tones when describing what she has been told about the horror of the POW camp.

Fox dominates the novel. The reader is finally as fascinated as Peter with this unforgiving survivor whose elegant exterior in the guise of posture and clothes belies a corrupt interior full of sadistic impulse and unstinting hate: “It was like talking to a new creature, something from someplace else.” His toast to the dead—“absent friends”—is more a threat than a salute, and his account of the torture inflicted by the Chinese is as harrowing as anything in contemporary American fiction.

In the background of Fox's relentless tale lies the shadow of Stonehenge. Hilary recalls childhood memories of dancing on the stones, and she is very much aware of Hardy's use of the ancient structure in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. With the accounts of Druid sacrifices of virgins and of Hilary's appreciation of Tess, Busch nudges the reader's curiosity away from what happened in Korea to what happens in Salisbury. This is as it should be, for Busch's strength is clear sight and supple prose when dissecting the usually understated, always felt tensions that sully the atmosphere of domestic affairs. If, the reader wonders, virgins are sacrificed and Tess betrayed, what is Hilary's daily routine behind the walls of her historic house with its oddly-shaped rooms and thatched roof? Literary parallels may annoy readers unsympathetic to Hardy's notion of destiny, but the question of Hilary's dilemma nevertheless directs the final movement of War Babies. Busch intrigues the reader as thoroughly as fate entraps the characters.

Thus toward the conclusion of the novel Busch gives Peter a choice: to turn back from Hilary's house or to peer behind the bedroom wall. Aware that his path has finally forked, but refusing to walk wisely, Santore makes the wrong decision. What he discovers is the mutuality of betrayal, the ease with which everyone uses everyone else, the always-clenched grip of the past. The fathers may be gone but their presence is invariably felt. Fox sees to that. Always the subject of Busch's best fiction, adult love is shattered near the monoliths of Stonehenge in War Babies. Peter learns a truth that Hardy and Busch have long known: betrayers are also victims.

War Babies and Harry and Catherine illustrate opposite sides of Busch's canon. In the former the domineering male, with his humorlessness and power hiding pain, wrecks the female's life while failing to find a way back to his own. This grim, taut novel reveals Fox's discipline as a facade, Hilary's self-sufficiency as a sham. In the latter, however, the hesitant male, with his memories and love exposing need, invades the female's life while trying to define his own. Harry's longing is as formidable as Catherine's strength. The varieties of love are at stake in both novels, and in both love fails. In the world of Frederick Busch, friends are always absent.

Greg Johnson (review date summer 1991)

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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 remained silent about this distinctive genre or have floundered considerably—and sometimes comically—in attempting to classify it. Should a novella be defined simply by its length? Are there unique aesthetic properties which set it apart from the short story and the novel? Is the novella to be distinguished from the “short novel” or the “novelette”? Such puzzlements over genre have scarcely been settled by that small band of intrepid scholars who have devoted book-length studies to the form. In Narrative Purpose in the Novella, Judith Leibowitz writes that “the short novel is a short version of the novel genre of fiction, whereas the novella is a different literary form, coinciding occasionally only in length with the short novel.” Mary Doyle Springer, in Forms of the Modern Novella, isn't much help, either, even when she declares with italic certainty that “the novella is a prose fiction of a certain length (usually 15,000 to 50,000 words), a length equipped to realize several distinct formal functions better than any other length.” Discussing the novellas of Henry James (who labeled them nouvelles), Krishna Baldev Vaid resorts to some mathematical gyrations in attempting to sort out the matter:

The length of a James nouvelle extends from about 17,000 to 26,000 words if we include Daisy Miller and The Lesson of the Master as nouvelles, each about 23,000 and 24,000, respectively. The Pupil and The Bench of Desolation run from 17,000-18,000 words. An International Episode runs to almost 30,000 words. Is it a “long” nouvelle? What of A London Life,The Aspern Papers,The Siege of London, and The Turn of the Screw, all in the early thirties or forty thousands? They exceed the length of a nouvelle and … do not yet qualify as short novels. They are just long tales. So An International Episode is one of the “shorter” long tales beyond the length of a nouvelle. Strict, consistent classification of James's shorter fiction is obviously difficult.

Obviously. But writers, as distinct from critics, are seldom interested in such classification, and the indeterminacy of the form is perhaps one of its chief attractions. Whatever the reason, a large number of important novelists have also made the novella an occasion of a major achievement. This distinguished group includes Melville, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Kafka, Mann, Wharton, Faulkner, Porter, and preeminently James (who called the form his “ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle”). These writers intuitively grasped the only meaningful “definition” of the novella: its combination of the intensity and focus of the short story with the novel's amplitude of theme and characterization. Even though James himself had difficulty in placing his novellas with magazines, he referred often to the aesthetic advantages of the form, and such masterful novellas as The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers have become, for twentieth-century writers, classic models of fictional experimentation and technique.

The books reviewed here suggest that contemporary writers also consider the novella to be “beautiful and blest,” even though today's practitioners have met with the usual resistance. Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate and our country's most honored living writer, was unable to place A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection with magazines, a circumstance which brought him to the innovative decision to publish them as paperback originals. Although Joyce Carol Oates's I Lock My Door upon Myself has arrived in hardcover, its favorable notice in The New York Times Book Review avoided any consideration of genre and referred to the book as a novel, inspiring a comment from Oates in the “Letters” section: “The work in question is not a novel, but a novella. At 98 printed pages, with a gravitational core akin to that of a short story, it has few of the formal properties of a novel. Indeed, told in novel form, the same narration would have required well beyond 300 pages.” Conversely, the other books reviewed here—Constance Urdang's American Earthquakes and Frederick Busch's War Babies—are billed by the publishers as novels, though both are considerably shorter than, for instance, James's The Turn of the Screw, and likewise have a short story's “gravitational core.” …

Frederick Busch's War Babies is considerably more successful in exploring its own ambitious themes: war and its aftermath, the nature of evil, the corrosive power of guilt. In the fall of 1984, a 35-year-old American lawyer, Peter Santore, travels to London in search of Hilary Pennels, whose father died in a Korean prisoner-of-war camp. Peter's own father served time in an American prison for treason, and was possibly responsible for the death of Lieutenant Pennels. Propelled by inherited guilt, Peter begins a love affair with Hilary, attempting both to understand and purge himself of the past. Tired of “living alone so profoundly,” he seeks “a sister-in-history.” Instead he finds a talkative, rather flighty bookstore owner who bears him no grudges and who makes grandiloquent pronouncements about sex, death, and fate.

The novella focuses upon Peter's relationship with Hilary and also with an older man named Fox, who had fought alongside Lt. Pennels in Korea. Fox's characterization is perhaps the novella's finest achievement: still obsessed with the war, he confirms Lt. Pennels' heroism and the treachery of Peter's father, stunning Peter with horrific details of torture and malnutrition in the camp. In a brilliant stroke worthy of another American allegorist, Herman Melville, Busch gives this oral historian fetid breath and a set of bad teeth, his “mouthful of brown and gold rot” becoming a vivid emblem of moral decay. He seems bent on punishing the son for the father's sins: “His rage at my father,” Peter reports, “no doubt at me, and … the pure power of the facts he pronounced, all drove his language on. … I felt no less bested than when I was a boy and a bully kneeled on my shoulders and spat down into my face.”

Like Urdang, Busch sometimes loads his story with more allegorical import than its plot can bear. Moreover, Hilary's characterization is never entirely convincing; her manic, outrageous behavior often seems gratuitous rather than meaningful. Both these problems are apparent in the scene describing the couple's portentous visit to Stonehenge, during which Hilary throws herself on one of the stones and pretends to be her favorite literary character, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Even this scene, however, is marked by Busch's finely cadenced prose:

I followed Hilary's quick march counterclockwise and then stopped behind her. She was teetering on her toes—they were in American running shoes—and looking at a long, coffin-sized stone that was at right angles to us. It looked like blue-black rock and nothing more. The stones against the sky were spectacular—dark, immense, purposeful, and secret. The stone we stood at was like a bad imitation of a sarcophagus. … She sat on the stone as if it were a bed. I saw the guard in his dark blue uniform come walking from the far diameter of the circle. He rose between the stones. She lay down and she folded her hands at her waist and closed her eyes. I saw the lids flicker.

Busch develops his intriguing premise with skillful dialogue, masterful use of detail, and a brilliant plot twist in the concluding pages. Despite its lapses, War Babies is a vivid, memorable performance.

Are there any general inferences to be drawn from the fact that Busch and the other authors considered here, all of whom have done distinguished work in other genres, are devoting some of their best energies to the novella? Apart from the inherent advantages of the form, it might be particularly suited to a literary climate that has favored, throughout the 1980's, the powerful obliqueness and compression of Hemingway-inspired minimalist writers, most notably Raymond Carver. In the 1990's, the best American fiction will surely incorporate the stringent economy of minimalism even as it sheds the insipid themes and the predictable, present-tense monotone of Carver's epigonic followers. Thus it is possible that the novella, a form which can combine complex ideas with an adroitly controlled technique, may enjoy a new popularity, a fuller realization of what Henry James, in The Art of the Novel, praised as a genre whose “main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.”

Diane Fortuna (review date 1 February 1992)

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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 experiences as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. Those memories—of torture and humiliation at the hands of his captors—constantly surface as Brennan prepares a pro bono case in which he defends a woman who has murdered her partner during “rough sex.” Directly addressed, the reader becomes both judge and jury as Brennan obsessively and predictably becomes his client's next lover. Who should the reader judge—the murderess or the lawyer who becomes involved with her?

All this seems standard enough. But Frederick Busch has broken through the boundaries of courtroom dramas. Busch, professor of literature at Colgate University, is a prolific writer. He is author of 13 domestic novels, three collections of short stories and two works of non-fiction, but none are as compelling as his latest work, Closing Arguments. It is an experimental novel in its pained and self-conscious narrator and in its demands upon the reader's participation. Not a lawyer, Busch has included as part of Brennan's consciousness references to recent sensational trials involving everything from child abuse to mass murders to the Chambers case. Not a veteran of a foreign war, he was written the most powerful scenes of aerial combat since Catch-22 and has created a character as haunted as Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim. The interrogation scenes set in a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp are all but explosive.

All good novels work by surprise. In Closing Arguments, the plot takes more turns than a country road; the style is bare, time jumps without transitions from the prisoner-of-war camp to the present and back again to Vietnam. Chapters are mere vignettes, usually short and entitled ironically to indicate the fragmentation of Brennan's personal and professional life. His wife, out of sheer loneliness, is having an affair, his 16-year-old son has been using cocaine and his daughter may have been exposed to AIDS. “Life, ordinary life,” Brennan shouts during the murder trial, “can feel like combat. …” This impassioned cry is the core of the book, and Busch repeatedly uses the experience of Vietnam as myth and counterpoint to Brennan's current confusion. After his escape from the internment camp, an American intelligence officer advises Brennan to tell the truth. “Which truth?” Brennan asks. “Our truth,” the debriefing officer replies. In like manner, years later, Brennan advises his client, “When we figure out what truth we're telling, then we'll work on how to tell somebody that particular truth.”

The author implies that relative truths are symptoms of the ethical wasteland that America has become. But Frederick Busch is neither polemicist nor moralist. In Closing Arguments, some readers may fault him for offering no solutions. Others may find the explicit sex scenes offensive, but they are integral to the atmosphere of corruption and violence that the novel presents as a whole. Despite these possible objections, Busch has written an eminently readable, suspenseful thriller. It has all the elements of “Hollywood”: sex, violence, war, post-traumatic combat stress, legal sensationalism. But it is also a finely crafted and haunting psychological and social novel.

Irving Malin (review date spring 1992)

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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 arguments, justice loses. The truth is never revealed completely.

Once we accept Busch's premises, we see that he distrusts language; he recognizes that it is a violent instrument. Consider, for example, this passage: “The father's word: ‘bonding.’ Like ducks with ducks and dogs with dogs and children with parents: bond. They didn't like their progress as a family. They thought they'd try divorcing their child.” The narrator calls into question the silliness of the word bonding; he recognizes that such words are useless. What exactly is bonding? Isn't it merely an example of pop psychology? And, to continue, isn't any word open to creative ambiguity?

The narrator constantly makes lists. They suggest that there is sequence, order, direction. But his lists are crazy: “Responsibility. Defense of freedom. To achieve independence for South Vietnam. To do only what is necessary. To increase response to increased attack. To therefore make attacks by air.” The repetitions create a sense of certainty, but they also remain odd. What is “necessary”? What is “attack”? What is “increase”? The more we explore his lists, the less we understand their rationale.

One final irony: Busch puts the novel on trial. Can it be true to life? Isn't it true in a deceptive manner? Isn't it an open, not a shut case?

Richard Eder (review date 16 May 1993)

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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 the town newspaper, is hiding both his anguish at growing old and the hemorrhaging produced by his incessant smoking.

Sarah, a decorator who lives in Pennsylvania with her architect-husband, Barrett, is in breakdown mode. She walks out of the shower leaving it running and the soap unrinsed. She wakes her 6-year-old son, Steven, to announce “a little emergency feeling in the air” and proposes a picnic, even though it's been snowing. Barrett, successively bewildered and frightened, asks what's wrong. She answers with a list. The IRA has bombed Harrods, a baby has been abandoned in a garbage can, a friend has had a face-lift. “Because,” she adds incoherently, “it isn't such a BAD marriage. … And Steven's so SWEET and everything. I mean, we LOVE each other, after all, don't we?” By this time Barrett is weeping in fear.

Before this, we have read what happens a day or two later: “So there came Barrett, from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, steaming over Route 81 at night to bear his son to his in-laws and tell them that their daughter was gone.” In the car, Barrett's child consoles him, telling him that he'll find her, that they'll be back soon and that he, Steven, will be just fine with his grandparents. Barrett—only gradually do we see that he is as close to breakdown as Sarah—has decided that his fugitive wife has gone to Santa Fe, which they once visited. He won't call the police or wait for a message; clueless, he will get in his car and drive 2,000 miles to look for her. In fact, he is running away too.

There are other cameos, also in scrambled simultaneity. We see Lizzie and Willis, in shock in their kitchen after Steven has been left with them and Barrett has steamed West. Willis feels even older; his hopes for a few peaceful years seem gone. Lizzie, who shares with him the closeness and distance of an old and loving marriage, eschews her husband's complicated self-pity for a simpler rage at her daughter. Her adopted daughter, that is; because in rural Pennsylvania, near the New York border, we see Gloria, a stumpy, self-willed county nurse and herbalist, placing ads in small-town papers: “Am I your mother?”

With extraordinary compression, subtle detailing and a stunning use of montage, Busch has given us a sense of an entire American drama. It is a disaster more than a tragedy, the sort of disaster that can happen to good (mostly) people adrift in contemporary life, with little help from society or from any faith apart from an uncertain balance between self-fulfillment and meaning well.

In the first 30 or so pages, we have virtually a whole novel at short-story length. The effect is exhilarating. We have inklings of Barrett's moral disintegration—he will come to a squalid as well as violent end—and of Gloria's half-mad efforts, after 30 years, to claim her daughter and grandson. We sense the strengths and vulnerabilities of Lizzie and Willis, and the pain and dignity of Steven, the abandoned child.

Unfortunately, after this beginning, Long Way from Home turns into a short story at novel length. Busch, the most open-spirited of writers and an extraordinarily talented one, tells us in a prefatory note that his novel began as a short piece, which he expanded on the advice of his fellow novelist Richard Bausch. It was not good advice, though Busch quite rightly takes the responsibility.

There are some splendid moments that follow the opening. Willis's intelligent care of the bereaved Steven slows his own too easy surrender to old age. Lizzie's take-charge instincts undergo an enriching transformation as she comes to realize what she can and cannot do as a grandmother. In an anguish of fear she watches the boy swing dangerously on a rope over the river that runs near their house, and realizes what it expresses: “He's simply taking the shortest path, and the riskiest, into his mother's life.”

But the playing out of Sarah's and Barrett's separate flights, and much of the rest of the book's development, are less successful. There is a sense of padding, for one thing. A brief side-plot about a boy in Lizzie's school who causes a scandal by failing to salute the flag is both cursory and obtrusive. Sarah's early, passionate affair with a painter fails to show anything very interesting about him or her; an extended sex scene between them follows right upon a similar scene between her and Barrett. The two scenes are all too similar, in fact.

Sarah and Barrett are self-indulgent and curtailed children of the '70s and they don't amount to a great deal more than that. “Troubled” is their adjective; neither really has a character available for being modified by it. Sarah does manage to heal, after her encounter with Gloria jars her into accepting her life, her child and her adoptive identity.

Busch is the prolific author of the powerful though partly flawed Harry and Catherine and Closing Arguments, and of a memorable and quite unflawed collection of short stories, Absent Friends. He is a restless and valuable figure and certainly under-appreciated. His brilliance and originality show themselves best in the illuminating individual scene; he seems less comfortable with the long connective work of developing and rounding out plot and character. There, sometimes, he will drop in a glib, even a sentimental, formula; naming the emotional transaction instead of showing it.

His strengths and weaknesses, and the risks he takes, are all evident in Long Way from Home, with the soft spots more apparent than in his other recent work. Still, the extraordinary beginning and a number of moments throughout show what he is capable of doing and what I believe he will continue to do.

Bruce Allen (review date 13 March 1994)

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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 reinforce our sense that Busch's people totter uneasily astride their accomplishments, careers and relationships, perpetually in danger of being uprooted and cast away from them.

This relentlessly bleak view of human interrelationship is the undercurrent running throughout an increasingly productive lifework—11 novels and five short-story collections, among other books, in barely 20 years—that has made Busch one of our most visible and admired serious writers. His recent novels Closing Arguments (1991) and Long Way from Home (1993) have flirted with commercial as well as critical success.

Now comes [The Children in the Woods,] a major retrospective of 23 stories—15 from his previous collections, five uncollected until now and three previously unpublished. Each is a compact chronicle of the mingled experiences of loving and losing and longing, a terse report from the battlefield on which we compulsively engage our nearest and dearest.

Inevitably, they're a mixed bag, including a few distinguished only by a memorable summary phrase (in “The World Began with Charlie Chan,” a radio talk-show host intones, “We are surrounded by darkness and people tell us lies”) or sharp perception (in “The Lesson of the Hotel Lhotti,” a woman infers from acquaintance with her mother's aging lover “a lesson … about things running down”).

It's nice to rediscover three of the interrelated stories from Domestic Particulars (1976), a mosaic examination of the frustrating dynamic among urban liberal activists Mae and Claire Miller and their son Harry, over many years—particularly “The Trouble with Being Food,” a wry and likable account of the grown Harry's ludicrous misadventure as a lover.

Buried emotion is allowed to surface, subtly and movingly, in “The Settlement of Mars,” whose 9-year-old narrator gains painful intuitions of adulthood as he accompanies his father on their “separate vacation” after his mother has left them, and in “The Wicked Stepmother,” in which a suspicious adult daughter learns to her surprise that her widowed father's pert, trim, “sex-goddess” new wife is a women with her own sorrows and a person of depth and consequence.

The long, multileveled “Stand, and Be Recognized” traces the emotional odyssey of a draft evader brought home by the death of the woman he'd loved, then brought to a saving self-knowledge by his troubled involvement in the new life of her widower (and his best friend). A heartfelt, involving depiction of several kinds of fidelity and betrayal, it has the density and drive of a skillful novella.

These stories are loosely linked by the irregular recurrence of vivid conceptual details, both ruefully comic (a tired spouse's struggles to lose weight) and deadly serious (the imperative to remember one's Jewishness and honor the memory of the dead), and of homely or neutral images (missing dogs, flooded cellars) that are charged with symbolic resonance. And several stories embrace a reference to the folktale of Hansel and Gretel (“It's the saddest story about families”), the prototypical children in the woods.

Busch's newer stories, more ambitious and complex, buoyed by greater pungency and wit, enormously richer in supporting detail, are the standouts in this collection. “Ralph the Duck,” astonishing in its concision, reveals with understated emotional power the turbulent inner life of a 40ish college student who is working as a campus security guard, “getting educated-in a kind of slow-motion way.” “Dog Song” is a tour de force: the tale, told in brisk, suspenseful fragments, of an adulterous judge who is permanently disabled in a car wreck and becomes painfully estranged from both his embittered wife and from his half-memory of the woman for whom he betrayed her.

In “Berceuse,” Busch brilliantly links this collection's ruling image with the Nazi death camps and their ovens (“Millions of Hansels and millions of Gretels again”) and offers a powerful characterization of a wronged woman whose aggrieved loneliness is slowly displaced by her surprised consent to heal and be healed. I think it's his best story yet.

These later works may well indicate a path leading out of the thicket of despairing monotony in which, for me, much of Busch's work lies mired. I hope so. For even his better stories shriek their message at us too stridently, demanding that we declare the unexamined life unacceptable. The fact is that we grow weary and uncomfortable as these stories rub away at their metaphorical sores, never leaving us for a moment unaware of gaping wounds underneath scarcely protective clothing—until we want to object in response yes, well, the life that's continuously, naggingly, insistently examined may not be worth living either.

Patrick McGrath (review date 20 March 1994)

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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 Jews, some not; some stories take place in New York City, more often the setting is a small town Upstate, where the winters are hard and men can be better at understanding plumbing systems and the innards of pickup trucks than the minds and hearts of their wives. Not that the women are much clearer about why relationships survive and why they fail. In Frederick Busch's world everyone is looking for the trail of bread crumbs that will lead them out of darkness and into the light.

Many of the stories here depend on a sort of loose, suggestive symbolism—they pivot on an object, or an idea, or a small but crucial incident meant to transform the tangle of experience in which it occurs and so give resonance and design to the whole. A good example is “My Father, Cont.,” in which a child (Busch is never afraid to tell a story from the point of view of a child or a woman) describes how his parents in their unhappiness bicker about some books the mother wants the father to donate to a sale. The family goes for a drive in the country, the car gets stuck in snow and the father uses the books to try to get traction under the tires. The books are shredded by the spinning wheels, but to no avail. The child cries and is hugged. A sort of peace is restored.

This is a vignette of family life in which the story's weight and meaning reside almost entirely in its few symbolic motifs: a family dynamic is established, but all that actually happens is the drive in the country and the car getting stuck. The great risk with such fiction is that if alchemy doesn't occur—and too often with this type of story it doesn't—what's left is slight and inconclusive.

When Busch establishes a strong dramatic structure, however, and uses that as the housing for his insights, the result is often fiction of a very high order indeed. A good example is “Ralph the Duck,” the sort of rich, dense, tightly constructed piece of writing that reminds you that perfection is possible, if not in the novel, at least in the short-story form. This is Frederick Busch at his best, managing the country he knows, the season, the characters, the themes, bringing them into exquisite, understated harmony in a story whose narrative accelerates to a powerful and vivid climax, and then segues delicately into a haunting, pathetic resolution; a story with heart that fits together like a piece of fine machinery. It's about a security man at a campus near a small town somewhere in the Northeast in winter. Busch brings his character to life in a few deft strokes, establishes a rich inarticulate emotionality in him, and then constructs in an utterly unforced and flowing manner the events that will draw out his vulnerability, sorrow and physical courage in what culminates literally in a life-and-death drama. In the end a man who's lost a child is able to save a child, and the power rests in the story's utter lack of sentimentality, the tone of quiet irony that has the effect, paradoxically, of lending it an almost unbearable pathos.

Equally powerful, though more formally complicated, is “Dog Song,” which begins with a scene of utter horror. Police break into a mobile home whose owners are suspected of cruelty to dogs. They find the place “alive with excrement and garbage. … Madness crawled the walls. Lloyd, the husband, had written with dung his imprecations of a country and state and nation that established laws involving human intercourse with beasts. Twenty-six dogs were impounded, and the couple was heavily fined by the judge.”

“Dog Song” is told from the point-of-view of the judge, Snuyder, who wakes up soon after in a hospital bed, having apparently attempted suicide by driving his car into a telegraph pole. His terrible predicament is his inability to remember who the woman with him in the car was. She certainly wasn't his wife, and his wife knows it, and she's in the process of leaving him as he lies there in his shattered, pain-racked body. But what irks him as much as any of this is that the case of the couple in the filthy trailer—who have since taken 11 hostages in the county building in an attempt to get their dogs back—has been given to another judge. “It was a case he had wanted to try. They were accused of a dozen public-health violations and twenty or more violations of the civil and criminal codes. And they were so innocent, Snuyder thought. No one should be allowed to be so innocent.” The story ends soon after this, with Snuyder still in the hospital. “The police would come soon with questions. He was held together with pins. He was going to die, but of natural causes, and many years from today. He knew it. He smelled the dark air of the trailer, and he heard the gaunt dogs whine.”

This is alchemy. It's difficult, and ultimately unprofitable, to say quite why the various elements of this story cohere, why they cross-resonate life a complex chord and give out a wholly satisfactory but inexplicable ring of truth-of-experience. It's the highest form of literary pleasure, and Frederick Busch delivers it with several of the stories in The Children in the Woods.

The one real criticism is that too many of the stories fail to come off, in other words that the book's too long. If fiction is the meaningful arrangement of incidents in time, too many of the pieces here are lacking in sufficient incident to generate the rich, crashing cymbals of meaning that hang in the air long after a story like “Ralph the Duck” or “Dog Song” is over Frederick Busch's best moments come when he harnesses what he knows about people and families and marriage with his strong storytelling talents, and avoids the more minimal, sketchy epiphanies.

Glen Scott Allen (review date spring 1995)

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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; and most of the reviews of this oft-reviewed and much-praised collection (it was short listed for the 1995 PEN-Faulkner award) make much of this connection. But these are also stories of the terrifying darkness of adult responsibilities recognized and faced, though not always triumphantly.

In “Bread” two children try to put their parents' house together (or perhaps take it apart) after their parents' accidental death; one seeks refuge in sarcasm and denial, while the other makes bread that will never be eaten and thinks on various kinds of “debris”: the “still-smoking rubble” of his two-year marriage, the pile of clothes that has “nothing to do with how my mother wore my father's flannel shorts on Sunday to cook in. …” In the stylistically innovative “Bring Your Friends to the Zoo” a couple (these are nearly always duets of longing) awkwardly tries to dismantle (or remember?) their affair, while being directed by the narrator about how to move, what to see: “Once through the gate, face right. The Deer House, the Camel House. … As you face your right you see a path before you. Take it.” The zoo would seem at first neutral ground, but we discover that there is no neutrality, that no one is the innocent bystander, the one-day tourist. In “Is Anyone Left This Time of Year?” tourism of another kind is explored when recently widowed man visits a town where there are no more tourists, and once there, shell-shocked with grief, he merely repeats everything said to him, thus becoming an echo of his previous visits; absolutely passive, he is the compleat tourist, merely and only “seeing” the sights. In “A Three-Legged Race,” a woman recalls her entire life—a life of compromises in the flesh midst the rhetoric of principle.

Throughout this assemblage of 15 previously published and eight new stories (all personally selected by the author), we are time and again struck by the voices Busch can “do”: subtle, convincing, all are virtuoso performances, and nearly all are about honest desires lurking beneath civil clichés. In “The Trouble with Being Food” an overweight but deeply compassionate suitor is confronted by the visit of his girlfriend's abusive ex-husband, a man who is an emotional and literal brawler—and, perhaps ultimately, a winner. This particular story is remarkable in many ways, not least in that it manages to make an academic—a dean, even—somehow physically threatening.

Yet finally, regardless of the narrator (most are first person, and all have the feeling of dramatic monologues, many seeming tours de force of negative capability), these are stories of the daily losses, the heartbreaks of little and therefore all the more deadly betrayals, with characters striving to “make” a life, a marriage, a son, to shove resistant reality into a more pleasing narrative. And most often it is stories themselves that get them through these betrayals, primarily the story called “that lie of family love.” When one character suggests that these moments of mourning are “not the time for telling stories,” another replies, “This is why they invented stories.” Busch's characters frequently discover resignation, but never acquiescence: “… and we continued—from jobs to other jobs, from the Village apartment to another one, from one hospital to another, from wound to wound, from childlessness to child to child. We tried.” Which becomes as eloquent as Faulkner's “they endured.”

Since his first novel, I Wanted a Year without Fall (1971), Frederick Busch has been considered a master craftsman of prose; and the stories here are filled with scenes that can only be called gorgeous: “the day was punctured by dusk, the sides collapsed, and ashen horizons leaked out, and there was the sun: red and swollen, grazing on the surface of the sea.” In this age when more attention is often paid to what authors wear than the words they write, “master craftsman” is the highest possible praise; and with these new and selected stories, Frederick Busch continues to demonstrate why he deserves this title.

Paul Hanstedt (review date winter 1997)

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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 easily extract a hero in Grisham and replace him with a hero from some other airport-rack writer, with little harm done.

The distinction Forster outlines continues to this day, with Collins, Waller and the like on one side and Proulx, Russo (at least Nobody's Fool) and their peers on the other. Increasingly, however, novels seem driven by both character and “plot” (what Forster calls “story”). In Snow Falling on Cedars, for example, Guterson combines intriguing mystery with an overarching concern for character. Not surprisingly, this work and others like it often become best sellers: readers are kept on the edge of their seats, yes, but they're also privy to interesting and insightful psychological studies of the novels' main characters. In other words, they continue to read because they're asking not just “and then?” but “why?”

Doris Betts's The Sharp Teeth of Love, Frederick Busch's Girls and Robert Schultz's The Madhouse Nudes all seek to juggle the sometimes conflicting demands of character and plot. While all three novels succeed, The Sharp Teeth of Love does so to a lesser degree. …

Unlike Betts, Frederick Busch makes it clear from the start that his is a novel in which plot is unapologetically dominant. The work is, for all practical purposes, a mystery. At the center of Girls, Busch's twentieth work of prose, is the tale of Jack, a campus security officer at a small college in up-state New York, who has been asked by a professor on campus to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl, Janice Tanner, the only daughter of a small-town minister and his cancer-stricken wife. The professor has chosen Jack because of the officer's history: not too long ago, Jack's own infant daughter died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Jack and his wife Fanny seem incapable of dealing with their grief and as a result, their marriage appears to be doomed. Complicating the narrative is Rosalie Piri, a petite young professor who is attracted to Jack, and William Franklin, a young drug dealer upon whom Jack takes out his frustrations with life.

If elements of the story-line seem familiar, that's because a part of the novel was previously published as an award-winning story called “Ralph the Duck.” Girls, like “Ralph,” shows Busch at his best, creating a seamless narrative that is compelling and poignant. At one point in the novel, Fanny struggles to get Jack to express himself, asking why he doesn't speak, and what he would say if he did. Busch then provides Jack with an interior monologue which clarifies both characters with a razor's edge:

I love your long, narrow face. It makes me sad. I've watched the skin loosen from its bones for twenty years. You were the girl I made love to in the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village and in Hawaii twice, on the big island in the borrowed beach house with the roof of galvanized tin, and in cars too small for all our thrashing around. You told me you were going to teach me how to shout and cry as you did. I read a terrible poem to you over a telephone wire running under the Pacific Ocean. You and I said Ralph the Duck to our baby and then we couldn't anymore, and then we couldn't talk about rubber ducks or children or say our daughter's name for so long. Your hair used to shine with the life in us and now the light rolls away from it. I could make you smile, then, and now I can't.

A lesser writer would need four pages to provide as much information, and more than likely would not have been able to do it in such a moving manner. In just a handful of sentences readers learn about two different characters, about past and present, about setting, about passion, about grief.

There are many such moments, most as well-written as this. What makes them effective is that they are often laced with humor, as demonstrated in a passage where Jack discusses the missing girl with Sergeant Bird, an agent for the state police. “I hate it,” Bird, an African-American, says. “I have two daughters. And the pissed-off wife, you're right. I think of my daughters. It seems to be white kids who get snatched, except in Atlanta or the Apple. But you never know. Here's one of those times you sink down onto your knees and pray for bigotry.” The conversation continues, Jack bribing Bird by withholding information until the trooper sees fit to share all he knows:

“Slyly done,” [Bird] said. “I'll read your file. I'd bet I'll be back in touch with my quid for your little pro quo.”

“That Latin's Greek to me,” I said. “Can I pay for this?”

“I'd rather you owe me, just in case I get pissed off at you down the road, Jack.”

“What's your first name again?” I asked.

“Sergeant,” he told me.

Busch is savvy enough to realize that contrasting the urgency of the two men with wit can only increase the impact of the former. Of course, there are moments where his writing is just plain funny, as when Jack describes his morning routine:

I went to the top of the campus and worked my route down, then drove to the dormitories and sports buildings that were adjacent to the campus. I wrote out tickets to two Saabs and a Toyota 4Runner, then ticketed some shabby old American cars to show that I would treat the professors the same as their students.

Busch, himself a professor at a small college in up-state New York, has a sharp eye for the ludicrous in contemporary academe.

There are some elements of Girls which might make the reader pause: when, for instance, Jack—who generally seems a good-hearted, albeit cynical person—repeatedly and without justification bullies and batters a local drug dealer. It just doesn't seem like him. Additionally, there's an historical frame around the narrative which is unnecessary and even a little confusing. Finally, thematically the work is at times a bit forced. As Jack drifts away from his wife and into an affair with the girlish Piri, we're repeatedly told of her small hands and tiny features. Perhaps the novel's only contrived moment occurs when, toward the conclusion, the story's villain accuses Jack of sharing his pedophilic tendencies: “You can kill me, Jack, if you need to. But I have to tell you. It looks to me like something about this turned you on. Like you were with me for a while. Their little titties and their hands in your mouth.” Theme, R. V. Cassill once wrote, is related to the unity of a story as light to a light bulb. That is, it comes from unity as light from a “carefully-made mechanical implement.” Girls is about as carefully-made an implement as can be found on a bookseller's shelf; no need to force the issue.

Richard Eder (review date 16 March 1997)

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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 good man who has seen too much evil—which he rages against, which he can least bear—and too much hypocrisy.

He is blasted with his own private evil: the death of his infant daughter, Hannah. In that utterly recognizable parent's inferno, a night of endless crying and no sleep, he and his wife, Fanny, had taken turns stretching their nerves and weariness to the snapping point. With one stretch too far, a desperate rocking became a desperate shake. The result was officially accepted as crib death. Not, though, by Jack and Fanny: two decent, loving people, each protective of the other, whose marriage over the course of the book freezes and dies from silence.

Knowing how thin is his own wall between darkness and light, Jack looks out and finds darkness everywhere. Patrolling the winter campus in his Jeep, he seems to see nothing but child victims and victimizers. There are the drugged-out students, rudderless amid the wealth and flaccidity of parents and society. There is the young all-American drug runner who works for a crime ring.

There is a waif whom Jack finds freezing in the woods above the school. She is suicidally blurred by pills and the sexual advances of a professor. There are the seductive professors, blue-jeaned and anoraked, whose sense of entitlement stretches seamlessly back to their youths in the '60s and '70s.

From the world outside trickle police-scanner reports of other children: missing, abused, killed. And finally, through Archie Halpern—the college psychiatrist, Jack's counselor and his only campus confidant—comes a request. Janice Tanner, daughter of a local Baptist minister, has disappeared and the police are searching for her with no particular hope or diligence. Can Jack, a cop and a bereaved parent, act as a bridge between an uncommunicative police bureaucracy and a family's anguish?

Girls tells of Jack's deepening involvement in the search and its dreadful conclusion. Other stories branch out: Jack's splintering marriage; his run-ins with a patronizing, unscrupulous professor; his deepening affair with another professor; his violent pursuit of the campus drug dealer and an even more violent reprisal by the dealer's bosses; and an oddly disconnected incident involving a librarian's refusal to provide information to the Secret Service detail assigned to a planned visit by the vice president.

Jack speaks, and Busch writes, in a blaze of anger and conviction. Their message: Children must be protected. Instead, in our society and in what it imparts, they are betrayed. (The investigation evokes a poignant scene: the nicely raised Janice, preparing to meet her seducer, spending her baby-sitting money on sexy black underwear. Two sets of underwear, so that one can be washed out and dried overnight. Junior Household Hints meets the Marquis de Sade.)

Even that ostensibly altruistic institution, the university, betrays its children, and Busch writes with stony knowledge and desolate detail of its sins of omission and commission. The force and seriousness of the theme come through flawlessly, as we have come to expect from this morally engaged writer who seeks to portray the tenderness of human love—conjugal, parental—and the world that rends it.

His artistry is sometimes impressive, but it does not always match his sensibility. The author's rage against what is wrong, his sorrow for the wronged, can make for an oppressive presence. Having set up his characters, he judges them, condemns them and redeems them. It is almost as if he had set them up in order to judge them: As if, by righting them, he could right the real world.

There are some purely splendid passages in Girls. Busch uses the northern winter as part of the fatefulness that drives and impedes his people. Jack skids and crunches his Jeep up and down the iced hills of the campus—he could be wrenching a fishing dory through the black surges of a North Atlantic January. There is a stark pitifulness to his meetings with the afflicted Tanners, she in her grief and approaching death from cancer, he in his double grief.

Above all, there is the portrait of a marriage fatally injured and its vain efforts to recover. Jack and Fanny cannot talk about their baby's death or consider how to rebuild their lives. Loving each other, they work different shifts to minimize their encounters.

Dialogue is replaced by action. He begins to strip the Bambi wallpaper from the nursery and to partition it for Fanny's office. She smashes things in protest against the hopeful gesture. He rips out the partitions. She takes up stripping Bambi. The conjugal engine has thrown a rod and helplessly tears itself to pieces.

Against this, Busch has over-stretched his genre story and genre hero to accommodate the old problem of evil: How, considering its existence, can there be a God, love, art and so on. Graham Greene could do it in his “entertainments”; few other writers can.

Aside from his searing message—and his encounters with his wife and the Tanners—Jack is a too easily familiar and too hastily drawn sensitive tough guy who has seen it all. Most of the other characters tend to be sketched conveniences. The drug runner is an arrogant punk. A professor is an, arrogant sophisticate who cultivates a macho image to inveigle his prettier students.

The questions in Busch's book are real, and the story and situation are dramatic. But it works, in fact, as a performance more than as a novel. Busch has not so much written the characters in his morality tale as cast and directed them. Onstage or in a film, the performers do a lot, though not everything, to suggest their characters' humanity, even as they are playing out the dramatist's or script-writer's story. In a novel, the humanity can only come from the writing itself.

Antonya Nelson (review date 16 March 1997)

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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 kind of professional comedown, reduced in this instance to the role of campus cop. He's taciturn, deadpan, ironic, a man who communicates with his intimates in shorthand.

After their child dies, Jack and his wife, Fanny, find themselves adrift in their partnership. Jack's response is to dig in at work, involve himself in the protection of his other charges, the pampered student body at the local college. Reluctantly, and in part because of his own history as the father of a girl who died and the savior of another, he becomes involved in the disappearance of a local teenager. Janice Tanner is the 14-year-old daughter of a minister, and the novel's shape is dictated by the months that chronicle the search for her.

Were this a straightforward detective novel, the author would not bother to spend much time accounting for why our hero is our hero. Busch takes a fair amount of care in legitimizing Jack as the perfect person for the job. But then it's not much of a job, really. There aren't any clues, for one thing, and there aren't really any suspects (a search of the girl's bedroom is not conducted until woefully late in the game). There's a drug dealer from New Jersey who has to be knocked about, and there are some thugs who come and pummel Jack, but these are obviously unrelated to Janice's disappearance. Jack speculates on an English teacher as a potential suspect—it's the English teacher who's indirectly responsible for the would-be suicide early in the novel—but that notion is not pursued. So the story of Janice's disappearance is really secondary in the book. It's Jack's varying degrees of attachment to the case, to his job, to his insurmountable grief, to his marriage and to his infidelity that must push forward the true story.

Some faltering moments occur when the detective genre overrides the more intriguing, enigmatic nature of Jack's character and the issues he faces. As a mystery, Girls is not entirely satisfying (I guessed the villain so soon in the proceedings that I assumed I must be wrong), and yet the novel is insistent about its genre elements. For example, the conventional detective story requires a love interest, and so, rather than permitting the obviously worthy character of Jack's wife to fill the role, Busch has Jack meet feisty professor Rosalie Piri, with whom sparks ignite. The wife is forsaken, which is a shame, as Fanny is a wonderful creation, and her supplanting seems a literary mistake. Beyond the clever banter and great sex with the professor, the real emotional heat in the novel resides between Fanny and Jack. Their longstanding marriage is complex and fascinating; the strictly literary novel would likely have focused much of its energy on examining it. While Jack might stray from a complicated partnership, he would embrace that betrayal as a central concern. But the demands of the detective genre don't permit this. Instead, Jack comes to believe only the solution of Janice Tanner's disappearance will dictate closure in his story.

Alternately, when the literary explanation for Rosalie Piri's existence needs to surface, Busch provides a psychological profile of Jack that seems abrupt and out of character. Jack's affair is not allowed to simply exist as romantic interest, but as an opportunity to indulge in some dark identification with the man who, he believes, has murdered the girl and hidden her body. The professor is consistently referred to as small and childlike, and Jack likes to beat himself up over his affection for her, naming it perverse. The reader is less inclined to see it this way. The professor is clearly an adult, fully capable of participating as an equal in her sexual alliances. The insistence on the pedophilia angle seems, as a result, gratuitous.

Too often in Girls, the mix of the literary and the genre grates rather than blends.

The best relationships in the novel are the ones engendered by Jack's pensive, charitable, unflinching character, rather than by obligation to genre. He engages in a philosophical disputation with the mother of the missing girl, a terminally ill yet strong woman who is staying alive only to see how her daughter's disappearance resolves. Unlike Jack, this parent of a lost child still turns her faith toward God, and Jack witnesses her prayer apprehensively, thoughtfully. Another of Jack's finer relationships is with his chocolate Lab, a dog wisely unnamed, who makes a habit of foraging for fetid meat, loving what makes him sick. The dog is excellently employed, neither sentimentalized nor trivialized, and is testament to the author's skill at negotiating emotional balance.

The home- and inner life of this narrator, as married to the outside impetus of a girl's catastrophe, made for a heartbreaking and beautiful short story. The novel does not achieve the same high level of synthesis, but if you can forgive the elements that distract, Girls is still a painful pleasure. The protagonist is a prickly and worthy creature, and Frederick Busch is a superb writer. The second chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

Frederick Busch and Charlotte Zoë Walker (interview date March 1999)

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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 collection of essays on fiction and the craft of fiction—including, in fact, two essays on Melville. It was also listed as one of the New York Times Book Review's notable books of 1998. Letters to a Fiction Writer is just what its title promises: a collection of letters from accomplished writers to writers at earlier stages of their careers, with a variety of modes of advice. It is, in effect, a portable mentor, and will be of tremendous help to new and emerging writers. Though Frederick Busch's fiction is widely known and admired among writers, he has not yet received as full a recognition and as wide a readership as his work deserves. His fiction is filled with richly realized and convincing characters, with beautifully rendered language and rightness of detail. Some of the major themes in his work are the importance of the “domestic particulars” of daily life, a concern for the lives of children in a dangerous world, a love for craftsmanship and labor of all kinds—and always, a love for the craft of writing.

I spoke with Frederick Busch last March about the short story and about the state of writing and publishing today. We met in his barn studio in upstate New York, where big windows look out on snowy fields, the sort of landscape he writes about so often—but where his computer faces away from the windows, to keep him focused on his work.

[Walker]: You have two books coming out in May 1999, and each in its different way is about the art of writing. Do you find any parallels between your novel about Melville, The Night Inspector, and Letters to a Fiction Writer?

[Busch]: The book of letters is, of course, about the art of writing—and about the craft, or craftiness, required of someone who wishes to be a writer, to live the writer's life. So there's a lot in Letters to a Fiction Writer about self-management; naturally, ways of approaching the art, of trying to make art, are present, in many forms, in those pages.

The other book to be published this spring, The Night Inspector, is a story narrated by a maimed Civil War veteran whose life becomes entangled with that of Herman Melville in New York City in 1867. Melville is at the far end of his career. His novels have failed; most of them are unread, even forgotten. His life is financially difficult—as it always was—and he earns his living as a deputy inspector of customs in the Port of New York. So here the concerns of the first book—approaching art, living the writer's life, managing a career, I guess you'd say—are visible in darker, unhappier terms. For this is a man whose fiction is thought of as failure, whose poetry is mocked, whose final narrative, Billy Budd, won't be discovered until the 1920s, when he's dead and in further eclipse. How did an artist, driven by such extraordinary vision, cope with “failure,” and, not incidentally, with the need to make a living? So there's Melville, on East Twenty-sixth Street in Manhattan, going to work at the docks: the far end of the life's are predicted—or prayed for—by those starting-out writers to whom the Letters to a Fiction Writer are addressed.

How would you describe the experience of writing a serious novel like this one?

You discover your book as you write it. That's why intention is blunted, foiled, failed; the only success available to us is in the dangerous meeting of the chaos, the ignorance with which we begin the day's work, and the moments of shaping that occur; those miracles of structure achieved; characters who breathe. You get lucky sometimes, and, dammit, you're Viktor Frankenstein, stitching life together from the contents of the soiled bag of spare parts—a hand turned a certain way, an eye reflecting light so that your eyes produce tears, the sound of a woman's skirt as it brushes the doorway as she leaves—that you carry around, whether you want to or not, calling it memory,need,talent, what you will. That instant when you do it, when you make life, and when you sense you've done so, and maybe can even muster the intelligence, energy, and cartographical skills to create a narrative structure in which these moments of plausible life can engage aspects of each other and of your reader: That is the only grace and glory, the best time you can have as a writer. The rest is when you assess your failure, or lie about your advance, blow a tin whistle to celebrate yourself, as if you matter in the world, and know, all the while, that what mattered was about your writing and happened back then, when the it occurred on the page. You know that you will lament its passing, and will wish to return to work so that it might happen one more time. The rest is tinsel. The rest is vanity. The rest is … not writing.

You've written several novels about characters who first appeared in short stories—Girls growing out of “Ralph the Duck,” for instance—and I am wondering about the question of completeness of a short story that then later gets drawn upon to become a novel. The short story is still complete as a work of art. …

In my mind, yes. But the characters can go on. In my early book Domestic Particulars, I adapted a number of early stories which had been about different characters, because I came to see that the narrator was the same, the narrative consciousness—and I realized I had been knocking at the door of a novel. I did not have a sense of form that such a novel could take, but I did see that something more could be done with those stories. So I made the narrative consciousness have the same name and the same family, and I linked all the stories in Domestic Particulars, so that they were a cycle of stories, starting with the boyhood of the narrator, and ending with a sort of sorrowful middle age. And was able to give each story the completeness that we like to find in a story, that sense of a shimmering drop of life, and yet connected to other little drops, so I could have a great big glassful by the end of the book if I did my work right. … There are times in stories when … there's an imbalance, either in the assertiveness of one character, in the interesting proposition that is the plot, or in the characters' confrontation, that makes us want to examine that aspect further—then it stops being a story. Then if you're going to examine an aspect, you're no longer writing a story about that one tiny moment prized away from time. You're either writing a novella or a novel or a cycle of stories, and your focus is on something other than that gorgeous moment when a solution precipitates into a crystal, and something is changed forever.

Is that how you define a short story?

I guess so. I just heard myself say it. [Laughs.] I think that's not bad, actually. It gets toward at least some of what the story does.

It reminds me of something that Virginia Woolf says too. She talks about a glowing object that you hold in your hand. She wants to make of the moment something that you hold in your hand.

Perfect. And, I have here a story by Ann Beattie called “Janus,” and that's a story in which that actual bowl becomes in a sense the hero of the story.

That's right! So the story as an object—that's really very interesting.

Yes. And Ann has helped me to move that way in thinking about the story. I still worry about that kind of extraordinary moment that she could achieve and that I could not [laughs]—and then I thought, Well, the hell with it, just try to learn to be half as good as she is, and get toward that. … I always thought I should try to be a little shaggier, a little rougher, a little less polished, lest I be disserving my characters. What I learned from contemplating Ann's work and the work of my other betters is that you can have both the emotional shagginess and inexactitude that I think realistic fiction is about, and at the same time work toward more precision—so I'm doing it, I guess.

When you mentioned Ann Beattie and the bowl just now, I was reminded of Nabokov's “Signs and Symbols” and the translucent jelly jars. There must be something for writers about that kind of image. …

There is. I think writers are inclined toward being artistic photographers—that is to say, not merely people who take pictures of cars for advertising, but who can use light and objects and a lens, which is consciousness, to capture an object or a physical circumstance and then show it to be more than the sum total of its captured parts. And the imperfection—capturing the imperfection, celebrating the otherness of the object, the not-meness of it—is what interests me. And I don't trust writers who don't care about things outside themselves. I care about writers who wish to be painters and musicians as they write.

One of the things that I find interesting in your work is the exploration of conscience as well as consciousness. The more I read of your stories, the more I begin to be aware of a larger social and political consciousness. I wonder if you'd be willing to talk about that.

I read the papers. I react to public events with the usual paranoia of the small, embattled artist. I think I feel responsibilities, ethical and social responsibilities, as everybody does—and I'm lucky enough to have a way of wedging it into a tiny division of the public consciousness, sometimes, in a story or a novel. I think in my novels I always try, and sometimes in my stories, to have simultaneously a public context and a domestic context going on, the one reflecting the other, in the hope that the domestic matters will reach out and impinge on public matters, and the public matters will reach down and touch domestic matters. … I think that's the brilliant idea behind those pictures of those poor children on the milk cartons. You're sitting there in your kitchen thinking about your Cheerios, and you see the face of somebody from another county or state, and suddenly you're simultaneously here and out there where the kid is, or where he's from, where he's missing from. And your small world becomes large, and the larger world becomes small, I believe. That's one of the jobs that fiction does, actually.

I'd like to ask you about the state of short fiction today. How you see the limitations of publishing opportunities for short fiction, and how you see the state of the short story as an art form today—two very different questions.

Of course, I don't think I know enough to answer either of them usefully, but that won't stop me from trying to sketch out a reply. The state of the short story is what it has always been. It's good. It's an American art form and we do it very well. But: The most excellent short story, the most wonderful soul-stretching short story as a work of gorgeous language and breathtaking event is alive and plentiful, but not well, because the editors of anthologies and many magazines are, in my eyes, second-rate. So they are picking what people like to call the workshop story, the “well made” story. … There are many good workshops, and there's nothing wrong with a well-made story—it can still be a surprise. What is happening, however, is that there are probably too many not-so-great writers who are not-so-great teachers teaching the composition of the short story. I'm not sure about that—could be. I do know there are some not-so-great editors selecting the short story, and what they select is sort of the average thing. The selection process, for whatever reason, is not very good. I think that the selectors are exciting new people sometimes, and are not experienced people. When they get experienced, and if they're not fired, and they probably will be, or move on, because it's a remarkably promiscuous profession—but were they to stay in one place and get experienced, they would become good selectors, and the anthologies would be better and the magazines would run better stories. So we have very very good stories, and not great examples of them culled, I would say. … I meet a lot of good students, I meet a lot of good writers. They're all over the country. We're in great shape. But we have to do better publishing. The writers are there.

The other part of your question, about getting short fiction published: There are the literary quarterlies; they are where I began, they are where I reside, and they are where I hope to conclude. If sometime Harper's is generous enough to take a story, which sometimes it is; and if, once, The New Yorker made a mistake and took a story of mine—great. Delighted to have their readership, which I covet, delighted to have the approval of some very smart people who edit there, and delighted of course to have their money, which is very good. But there are not enough pages in the glossy magazines for us all, or almost for any of us. The real writer, the working-level infantry writer in the trenches, has to keep writing, and when he or she thinks of publications to send stories, where intelligent editors have wider open arms, these are the quarterlies. Not that they aren't selective; but they are open to more. That is: The Threepenny Review, Wendy Lesser; Stan Lindberg at Georgia Review; Pam Durban, a fine fiction writer, at a new magazine called Five Points at Georgia State, where I'm very proud to be published. Seattle Review,Gettysburg Review. They're all over the place. This is where we work. And if, as happened to you, one of those stories gets taken for the O. Henry Awards, or the Best American, isn't that great. But if not …

One of my interests in your work is the way your stories deal with particulars of work, of labor, of craftsmanship. …

I really believe in it. I believe in myself as a worker when I write. Maybe it's because I'm the son of communists. My father was a red-diaper baby. He was recruited into the Party by his mother, a Russian immigrant. Not that we were raised with any ideologies of any sort that I can think of—political ideologies—but my grandfather was a worker, he was a carpenter. My other grandfather was a baker. And I have great respect for work and how it's done by workpeople, with skills and craft and sweat. I find that I cannot write a story or a novel unless I know what job my character has. I absolutely can't get started. When I know the job I've got the character, because that's where they meet the world. … And I'm interested in the process of work. I don't know how to do anything. I don't know how to do anything. I could barely tie my children's shoes when they were little. … So I'm full of reverence for people who know stuff. I'm a writer because I don't know anything. … But work is sacred. I know I sound like—who? Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Work is sacred. I love that I can do this work. I wish I could do more kinds.

So the work of writing is sacred too. …

It's a priesthood without a priest and without an order. But, yeah, it's sacred. And it's about The Sacred. It's about where we poor, bare, forked animals intersect with time, try to see ourselves in the context of the cosmos. What could be more sacred than that?

You have an obvious very high standard for your work, a standard that you are seeking to reach, that most readers feel you have reached. It's very moving to me to hear you speak about that; there's something almost unattainable that you seem to have in mind.

There is. That's what we should be trying to attain. Good art is a form of prayer. It's a way of trying to say what is not sayable. That to me is prayer, and in that sense fiction has certain religious elements, and I don't mean people reciting the same words in the same room. I mean interior religious elements, private religious elements. I think art is really hard to make, and that most of us who try to make it fail. There's a great sense of risk and danger when you write, and I love that. It's skydiving, it's hang gliding without the glider—I don't know how else to describe it—and without the sky. Because you're getting close to the dark, scary stuff, which is what writing is about, and yet you're trying to make it useful to other people—a remarkable simultaneity, it seems to me. And I don't think it's very easy to do, and I think most of us just don't get there, but we're compelled to keep trying to do it. And I'm as hard on myself, I guess, as I am on anybody else's work. But I really believe it. This is not a profession for the fashion plate or kids or amateurs. This is, as the book says, a dangerous profession. And it's one where you just aren't good enough very often or for very long, because you're going after it and it gets you first every time.

Sanford Pinsker (review date spring 1999)

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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 thin-skinned or the faint of heart. (I would like to add that it is also not for the disingenuous or the dishonest, but I know that this simply isn't true.) Writing covers so wide a swath and involves individuals so different in temperament and talent that one can easily end up talking about “everything”—and, as a result, talking about nothing. Why so? Because writing that matters is grounded in concrete instances rather than in abstract language. As a character in Philip Roth's I Married a Communist puts it, “Politics is the great equalizer, literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other—they are in an antagonistic relationship.” In this novel, set in the turbulent years of redbaiting and blacklists, Roth's sympathy is clearly for writing that allows us to see messy human lives (and historical periods) with the complexity and nuance they deserve.

Roth is hardly alone in cranking out such manifestoes. One thinks, for example, of prefaces by the likes of Henry James or Joseph Conrad, of Ralph Ellison's essays and William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech—but, taken together, these eloquent pronouncements tell at best only a partial story, for writing in the wider world incorporates much more than pronouncements of aesthetic rigor. That's why the books under discussion here strike me as a valuable corrective to those who would not be caught dead talking seriously about potboilers, much less about the ways that too many academics (mis)communicate with each other.

Does this mean that I have a newfound respect for those writers who butter their parsnips by dint of pen alone, or that I've changed my mind about the various ways that most academic writing is built upon a foundation of cowardice and subterfuge? Not bloody likely. But if Henry James was correct in arguing that fiction deserves its donnee—one cannot rightly criticize a novel about the Kansas prairie because it was not set in New York City—it is also true that roughly the same principle should apply when we talk about any piece of writing. To twist Gertrude Stein's famous aphorism, good writing is good writing is good writing—whether it be a short story, a travel sketch, a literary essay, or an inner-office memo.

Serious writers are oft inclined to sit on the ground and tell sad stories of book publishing's better days, mounting jeremiads that posit a golden age from which we have presumably fallen. Yet writers who rail about the end of print often confuse a willful exercise in nostalgia with harder truths. A lifetime devoted to serious writing was never a walk in the park, especially if one hoped against all odds that his or her paragraphs might last. History must be the final arbiter, conferring fame on a few while consigning many more to the scrapheap.

Small wonder, then, that writers are such a testy, beleaguered breed. As they say in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, “You gatta luv 'em.” But we also need to see them through a variety of prisms, which is why the following books struck me as fascinating studies in the disparate ways that people put their hopes and fears into print. …

Frederick Busch's A Dangerous Profession: A Book about the Writing Life provides us with news from a very different front. As the author of eighteen novels and two books of nonfiction, Busch understands how elemental writing is, as well as how essential it can be to our survival. In short, he knows, as can only a writer with full commitment to craft, that writing is “a dangerous profession.” The result is a portrait of the serious writer who has no choice about his or her lifelong commitment to letters, and who doesn't give a fig (or not many figs) about the vagaries of the marketplace. Hack writing is a hard-knock life, but it is not elemental in the sense that Busch uses the term, for what he means is a terrible (and uncompromising) honesty of emotion, one that sentences our best writers to a life of writing sentences.

Some of Busch's most engaging essays here talk about how his own fiction came into being, as when his father's World War II journals provide a jumping-off point for a son's extended psychic search, and about how it is that serious writing is a way to answer one of the most disturbing questions of all: “Where are you?”: “When I write, then, when I place my characters in a geography I labor to make actual-feeling, in some way true, perhaps I'm trying to earn my reader's approval. Maybe I have to find him first. Maybe, when I write, I'm mapping him.” Other Busch essays crackle with savvy remarks about Melville, Dickens, and most of all Hemingway. With a snip here, a tuck there, what he says about Hemingway could be about all serious writers regardless of their time or place:

I have talked about some of the plainest and most poignant examples I know of Ernest Hemingway's dedication to his art [his examples include such stories as “Indian Camp” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” along with For Whom the Bell Tolls and Garden of Eden], which was hardly selfless and priestlike, but which was, and this is my point, selfish and afraid. He did his work because it meant his life to him. … [His fiction] is alive with death, and with his sense that he would inevitably reach out for it. What I have talked about is the obvious trail he left in his art of his lifelong movement between the most terrible sounds of life, and the final silence with which serious writers seem somehow to be familiar.

Talk about giving an important writer his just desserts! What most Hemingway critics quite miss are exactly the counterthemes on which Busch concentrates: the pitiless demands of art and the ways in which genuine writing simultaneously becomes solace and threat.

The sixteen essays collected in A Dangerous Profession range widely, but taken together they come to nuanced portraits of what it means (and costs) to be a serious writer. Take, for example, his elegiac portrait of Terrence Des Pres, a colleague at Colgate University who wrestled with the demons of his childhood and then found an appropriate subject in his seminal study of Holocaust survivors. The Survivor (1976) is a landmark book that rightly gave Des Pres wide public recognition, but what Busch wants to emphasize are the ways that the man put his very life into every sentence and paragraph:

He wrote as if his life were at stake. Never mind the fame he wanted and achieved, and never mind the money he might have made or the undergraduates who held him in awe. Many of us, readers and writers, experienced enough to understand the human amalgam were also impressed and even awed. His work on the Holocaust remains important. So do his essays on contemporary poetry and the relationship of art to politics. Something of what he needed to find and needed to say is in the conclusion of his essay on the poetry of Thomas McGrath: “Against the old ultimatum, not thunder and the fall of sky, but the street's careless laughter and the sigh of a neighbor next door.” He was an engaged man who wanted to believe in Whitman's wished America, and he died too young.

Among those who have lost touch with Busch's sense of writing as an elemental struggle between memory and forgetfulness are professional literary critics. In far too many cases they tell us everything about a poem or novel except why anyone should love it. On this much-debated matter Busch is as passionate as he is workmanlike. Granted, our continuing academic follies are so many fat softballs lobbed over the plate, but unlike those who are satisfied by getting on base with a bunt, Busch swings for the fences. In “Bad,” a free-wheeling essay that, taken alone, more than justifies this collection, he rails against almost everything that our contemporary culture throws up: “Songs on jukeboxes that take as their subject sundown, long nights, or truck rides are bad. Women who feel constrained to dress for business by looking like men and carrying cordovan attaché cases have been subjected to what's bad. MTV is bad. Press secretaries are bad. Plastic bottles for whiskey are bad. So is most Beaujolais nouveau and the fashion for giving it as a gift.”

But the curmudgeonly Mr. Busch saves his greatest firepower for literature professors and those creative writers who have broken ranks with everything that makes a serious writer … well, serious. On his list of things gone “bad,” nothing quite trumps

literature professors who think that contemporary writing is, at its best, the cream in the departmental coffee. They tolerate writers, although it is their secret, they think, that Geoffrey Chaucer, were he to make application for work, would not be hired because he is a dead white European male and because his degree isn't good enough, and because he doesn't do theory. These people do not understand that literary art is not only the cream in their coffee but also the hillside on which the coffee is planted, the earth in which it is grown, the sweat on the skin of the men and women who pick the beans, the water in which the ground beans steep, the mouth that, savoring it, speaks by expelling words in shapes of breath it scents.

Moreover, such people not only corrupt their students but also muddy the very waters in which many creative writers now work:

It is bad that black writers do being black, white writers only being white, Chicanos being Hispanic, lesbians being homosexual, and feminists being feminists—instead of each doing art, or professing English, or writing about the nature of the world that has the temerity to exist outside them. It is bad for their souls and our minds that careerism so drives their critical faculties and their prose. A young artist or professor knows that you achieve success now by writing, painting, composing, or critiquing by way of your genes and the color of your skin. Authors once strove to get good by being more than the total of their birth weight multiplied by their genetic code. It's bad that they now claim credibility (and royalty checks) on the basis of the accident of their birth.

No doubt some readers will chalk up Busch's harangue to a bellyful of sour grapes, but they would be wrong. He speaks truth to power rather than the other way around. In addition, as George Orwell once pointed out, there are times when it is the duty of intellectuals to “restate the obvious.” We live such a time, and what Busch so passionately declaims is nothing more nor less than the fundamental truths serious writers and readers have always known. If many have substituted for these understandings whatever preens itself as the flavor of the month, Busch knows better—not only that writing which matters is made of sterner stuff, but also that this is the writing we as a culture most need. A Dangerous Profession is a delight on several fronts: clear, uncompromising, and absolutely free of the pretentious jargon that now passes for literary discussion, the book blends manifesto and testimony into a seamless, altogether convincing whole.

Michael Frank (review date 30 May 1999)

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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 wanders. It skips ahead. It loops back and makes connections to earlier events in the story. It remembers and makes connections to other stories and books entirely. And once the book is completed, the circularity continues: Sometimes (or in some future time) it consists of actual rereading; often it means mentally sifting through what has been read; occasionally, with beloved books especially, an association forms to the circumstances in which the book first came into the reader's hands so that moments of reading become joined with moments of experience. This circle of reading, which begins in childhood, is enlarged and enriched all through one's reading life; it constantly spirals overhead, or in one's head, like a persistent wind.

If the reader also happens to be a writer, he may be moved to throw a net up into that circulating wind and report on what has been captured in it. In the most general terms, this is the shared impulse behind Letters to My Son on the Love of Books by Roberto Cotroneo, The Books in My Life by Colin Wilson and A Dangerous Profession by Frederick Busch, three authors of different origin (Italy, England and America, respectively), background and talent who, passionate lifelong readers all, come together in the common belief that, as Cotroneo observes, literature “isn't simply a game of the intellect, but a way of understanding the world.” …

Although novelist Busch has subtitled A Dangerous Profession A Book about the Writing Life, it is effectively a book about reading even when the reading taking place is of people and not actual texts. “My Father's War,” one of the more moving and personal pieces in this collection of essays, is a portrait of the author's father, Benjamin J. Busch, whom his son approaches through the one written document his father created, a frustratingly inexpressive diary he kept during World War II. Seasoned reader that he is and (one feels) equally seasoned son, Busch is acutely attentive to his father's omissions. Like a painter making expert use of negative space, the senior Busch for a long time doesn't mention death or fear in his diary—which are “all I can imagine myself imagining,” his son comments—and when he is wounded by a booby trap, he conveys the event in an unadorned 13 words. Only on furlough at home does the soldier refer to “the end of the dread of death.” “He was several people. He was secret from himself,” Busch explains; and later: “I think that he is an aspect of every charming, elusive, sturdy, and vanishing man I have written.” All this is lovely in a self-referential and piercing sort of way, but Busch presses on, turning the personal into a wider commentary on the nature of writing: “You would think I'd have gotten him right by now, achieved some kind of satisfying resolution. But … there is no satisfaction, because writing does not offer that emotion.”

Busch further “reads” his past by presenting a sketch of his friend Terrence des Pres, which, for all its elegiac affection for the dead writer and genuine appreciation of Des Pres' intellect, is a much cagier piece of work. A circumlocution like “After the 1979 publication of my novel Rounds, in which Terrence claimed to find himself represented as less than heroic, we stopped knowing each other” interestingly omits (as does Benjamin Busch's war diary) Busch's participation in the action at hand, which in this case appears to be the writing of a novel that imperiled their friendship. “The Floating Christmas Tree” is Busch's rendition of a classic writer's fairy tale: his down-and-out and oft-rejected period, in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s, when he worked at a market research firm during the day and at night wrote in the bathroom of his studio apartment. The story is a fairy tale because the very fact that the reader is able to cup it in his palms tells him that the writer thrives (or at least survives) in the end, but it is one of those essential stories that speaks to all people embarked on creative journeys; when well done, as here, it is a story that can't be told too often.

As a reader of writers (Herman Melville, Graham Greene, John O'Hara), Busch can be astute and big-hearted. He writes incisively about how Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield, “does what all novelists do: He resists time by rowing backward, against the current, into his own life.” The current, in Dickens' case, was mighty and guilt-inducing, because one of the issues at stake was Copperfield's marriage to Dora, whose “unsuitability of mind and purpose” mirrored Dickens' to Kate Hogarth. The reader responds even more warmly to Busch's generosity toward overlooked or unfairly interpreted writers. In “Even the Smallest Position,” Busch at length describes why he so deeply values “The Steinway Quintet,” a long short story by Leslie Epstein, a friend of his. No matter. Busch's painstaking panegyric to the story's “music and the song of language, in the air or on the page” is sufficiently well-substantiated to add the scarce title to any questing reader's wish list, which is one of the delightful byproducts of these kinds of essays: their capacity to open up one's own personal reading circle.

A different—a corrective—value emerges in Busch's piece on Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose readership, he feels, has been unfairly reduced by the modern cult of biography. Though Busch does not dismiss the more problematic habits of Hemingway's mind (the bigotry, the anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the violence), he maintains that filing writers away “in categories that trundle home like mortuary drawers” is a lazy and superficial substitute for coming to terms with their writing, which in Hemingway's case can work “awfully effectively on the soul of an attentive reader who is not rigidly, ideologically, insensible to it.”

Near the end of his probing, gently meditative volume, Cotroneo explains to his son why “I and so many others write books like this one, instead of occupying ourselves with the concrete, the serious and the real.” He might easily be speaking for Busch and Wilson, for inhabitants of reading circles everywhere, when he proceeds to tell Francesco that “books contain instructions about how to live life by means of a fictitious world, a world made of paper.” Such instructions are not always seen or grasped with ease or finality, which may be why the pursuit of them keeps these readers—all committed readers—reading and rereading, always.

Thomas Hove (review date fall 1999)

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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 increasingly impersonal system by planning to rescue a ship-load of children from slavery. This attempt serves as a tragically ironic endeavor for a sometimes ruthless social Darwinist who is dismayed that the only victor in the Civil War was money.

Into this plot he drags the unwitting Melville, whom, in the overdetermined manner of Melville's Confidence Man, he treats as both a friend and a pawn. Much more compelling than this rescue plot, however, are Bartholomew's gruesome Civil War flashbacks and his vivid evocations of the language and substance of everyday life on the mean multicultural streets of Melville's “insular city of the Manhattoes.” This is historical fiction at its best: nineteenth-century in style and subject matter, late-twentieth in form and attitude.

Dean Flower (review date winter 2000)

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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” laugh soundlessly too much and mimic Ahab transparently at times (“Shipmates!”), but the account of Melville's son's suicide is rendered with uncanny dignity and tact. Other veiled allusions to pasteboard masks, confidence-man masquerades, impenetrable walls, and the blackness of darkness seem to glide naturally, if not quite unobtrusively, into the story. Much of the credit here must go to the voice—formal, slightly mannered, austere—of William Bartholomew as he describes even the simplest gestures of M: “He laughed a quick hiccup of an unhappy laugh, then shut himself into silence, smiling without pleasure at his port, and then drinking it off.” Here is another moment near the story's climax:

The apprehension in the atmosphere was as powerful and prominent as the expectation we could feel, I might have said, from one another. M, despite the heat and the sweating oils that shimmered upon his face, wore his oilskins and his woolen cap. He was very pale, as if ill with a miscreant's conscience, yet his little eyes were active, even restless, and he squinted into the dark flannel of the night, and he spoke and spoke.

The language of this novel is so impeccably right that it persuades you to accept all kinds of cruelty, nightmare, and melodrama as if it were documentary fact. Bartholomew's ruthlessly exact memories of the way he picked off Confederate soldiers are especially fine. But so are his dark cityscapes, his images of violence, greed, and exploitation. And who better than the silent, despairing Herman Melville—who wrote almost nothing during these years—to understand and confirm this bleak vision of the city? Busch finds the era to be morally and spiritually the darkest in our history. He argues that the Civil War preserved and strengthened the North economically, but left a residue of cynicism and despair. His plot shows racism and the exploitation of minorities growing worse, corruption and the betrayal of traditional values running rampant. The climax of the novel holds out hope, then tramples upon it. In such a world, Busch seems to be saying, no wonder Melville was silent.

Publishers Weekly (review date 21 August 2000)

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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 “Malvasia” is inspired by his daughter to resume his life. “Still the Same Old Story” is a devastating chronicle of marital cruelty and the effect on a teenaged daughter. A heartbroken husband and father in “The Joy of Cooking” bakes a cake as his wife packs her bags to leave. In “The Talking Cure,” a teenager's mentor (and his mother's lover) is intrusively didactic, but it's his gentle father who really teaches him about life. Memorable as these characters are, they pale next to the central figure in the title novella, set during the Vietnam era. Willie Bernstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, is teaching in a small upstate New York college and experiencing anti-Semitism, hate-filled conservative ideology, a passionate love affair with a woman married to a deranged Vietnam vet, and the breakup of his parents' marriage. As in the other stories here, it is an examination of the secret, interior life lived on many levels. Considering both his parents' problems and his own, Willie comes to understand that love does not make the loved one knowable. Busch's eye and ear are remarkable, and he charts the path of human vulnerability with a sure and steady tread.

David Guy (review date 12 November 2000)

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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 Manhattan lawyer, has implied to his wife that he's doing some kind of work for the government, but Willie suspects—rightly, it turns out—that he's just stepping out on her. Etienne Bernstein eventually leaves his wife, and winds up as a country lawyer in Lubec, Maine.

Willie visits his father there years after the story's opening. Etienne admits he betrayed his wife but seems more interested in the secrecy of the situation, which reflects Tony's secrecy with Willie. We realize as the man speaks that we're at the thematic heart of the novella.

“This, I think, is how it works, the secret life,” the father explains. “You do not wish to tell, so you tiptoe around like a drunk waiter, going from person to person. You whisper into their face, and they smell the wine on your breath. Don't tell anyone, you beg them.” That is what this whole collection is really about, the secrets we keep from each other but are telling with every breath, every gesture. The publicity material accompanying the book makes a comparison with Raymond Carver, and normally I ignore such hype, but in this case there's something to it. Busch's language is richer, and his technique more subtle, but he shares Carver's empathy for characters in even the most sordid situation. He doesn't stand back and judge them. He's right there with them.

The collection purports to be about the American family, but it is very much a postmodern family. There is, for example, the story in which the father who ruined his life with drugs and an illicit affair encounters his grown daughter, who mentions casually that she has an out-of-wedlock child (and lends the old man a couple of hundred bucks). That is my favorite of the shorter works here, “The Ninth, in E Minor,” a simple but poignant piece about people admitting their failures.

The news isn't all grim. “The Baby in the Box” is one of the funniest stories I've ever read, about a police dispatcher who goes on a heroic quest to help some women who found a baby in a Dumpster. And “Laying the Ghost,” believe it or not, is a comic story about a man being told he's fatally ill. The doctor in the case has some history with his patient; the man once humiliated him in front of his wife. At the same time, the doctor's partner is firing their alcoholic nurse—each man chooses the job he wants—so we're hearing the genuine, heartfelt wail of the patient, which tears at us, when in walks the tipsy, disgruntled nurse. “It's because I'm not a slender woman, isn't it?” she says. “It's a form of persecution. I'm an ample sized woman, and I never had a hope here. And you knew it, you pious citizen bastards.” You can't help laughing. Even the dying man smiles.

Busch sometimes annoys me with his virtuoso openings, as if he's trying to wow creative writing students with how much he can cram into a single paragraph. And occasional stretches of dialogue seem pretty on the page but nothing a human being would say. For the most part, though, these are expert stories by one of our finest fiction writers, about the secrets that we can't help telling: Our whole lives tell them.


Busch, Frederick (Vol. 10)


Busch, Frederick (Vol. 18)