Frederick Busch 1941-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, editor, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Busch's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, 18, and 47.
Regarded as a skilled and insightful author, Busch is admired for his realistic fiction in which he experiments with different narrative voices to examine the private lives of his protagonists. In many of his novels and short story collections, including Manual Labor (1974) and Harry and Catherine: A Love Story (1990), Busch explores the strength of familial relationships and depicts the quiet heroism of characters who confront domestic catastrophes. While his works often examine such subjects as death and alienation, they also affirm Busch's faith in the nobility of human life.
Busch was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 1, 1941. After attending local schools, he entered Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1962. After graduating, Busch became a Woodrow Wilson fellow at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, he studied seventeenth-century English literature while pursuing a master's degree, but eventually left the university without completing the program. Between 1963 and 1965, Busch held a variety of jobs including working as a clerk in a market-research firm, writing and editing for a series of small magazines, and briefly teaching English at Baruch College in New York City. In 1966 Busch was hired to teach at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. While teaching at Colgate, Busch enrolled in the university's Ph.D. English program. Although he never finished his doctorate, Busch earned a M.A. in English in 1967, writing a thesis on the fiction of John Hawkes. Busch's first two novels have never been published, but his third effort, I Wanted a Year without Fall (1971), and his first collection of short stories, Breathing Trouble and Other Stories (1973), were published and both met with critical acclaim. Busch was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1981, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship in 1982. In 1986 he won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for Invisible Mending (1984) and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his body of work. In 1991 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for “distinguished achievement in the short story.” Busch has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995 for his short story collection The Children in the Woods (1994), and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Fiction in 1999 and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2000 for his novel The Night Inspector (1999). Busch continues to teach at Colgate University as the Fairchild Professor of Literature while additionally serving as the director of the Living Writers program, a program that Busch founded.
Busch's literary career began in the 1970s with I Wanted a Year without Fall, a humorous contemporary adaptation of the Beowulf legend. I Wanted a Year without Fall was followed by the celebrated novels Manual Labor, The Mutual Friend (1978), and Rounds (1979). These works garnered Busch recognition as an author of novels that poignantly convey human emotions through diverse narrative viewpoints. Manual Labor evokes the grief experienced by a couple endeavoring to save their marriage after the wife suffers a miscarriage. The novel is related through the husband's journal entries, the wife's thoughts—presented in the form of an unmailed letter to her mother, and the voice of the dead child. The Mutual Friend departs from Busch's usual examination of contemporary relationships: the novel instead relates the story of the final years of author Charles Dickens from the perspective of George Dolby, Dickens's secretary. Rounds returns to familial concerns in its examination of pediatrician Eli Silver. Estranged from his wife following the death of their son, Silver suffers guilt and loneliness while trying to order his life through the discipline of his profession. During the 1970s, Busch also published several collections of short stories, including Breathing Trouble and Other Stories, Domestic Particulars: A Family Chronicle (1976), and Hardwater Country: Stories (1979). In Domestic Particulars, several members of an American family recount their ancestry and history from 1919 to 1976. The strained relationships within the family and their encounters with real and imagined crises are tempered by their enduring love for one another.
Busch's writing in the 1980s continued to depict domestic situations. Take This Man (1981) follows isolated events in the lives of Tony Prioleau, his lover Ellen Larue Spencer, and their illegitimate son Gus. Alternately comic and sad, the novel generates interest by contrasting the insecurities and hopes of the protagonists. Invisible Mending reminded some critics of the works of authors Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth in its depiction of a Jewish protagonist who struggles to come to terms with the Holocaust and its relationship to his heritage. In Sometimes I Live in the Country (1986) Busch explores marital discord and racial prejudice from the viewpoint of a suicidal urban adolescent who is removed to a rural community. Busch again departed from examining human relationships with When People Publish: Essays on Writers and Writing (1986). In this collection of essays, he shares his personal reflections on writing and examines the works of an assortment of his favorite authors. Absent Friends (1989) is a collection of short stories in which the common theme revolves around the characters' attempts to deal with love, loss, joy, and guilt—ideas Busch also treats in the novel War Babies (1989).
Harry and Catherine: A Love Story continues the on-again, off-again relationship of Harry and Catherine, first glimpsed in “The Trouble with Being Food,” a short story in Domestic Particulars, and who appear eight years later in the short story “The News” in Too Late American Boyhood Blues (1984). The novel follows the struggles of a fiercely independent woman and an almost too compassionate man who try, for the third time, to create a life together. Busch's next novel, Closing Arguments (1991), centers on Mark Brennan, a former Vietnam POW who is still haunted by the experiences he faced during the war. Now a lawyer, Brennan faces a modern world that seems to parallel his past in its violence and depravity while he searches for a simpler and more peaceful life. In Long Way from Home (1993), a mother abandons her husband and son to search for her birth mother in an attempt to come to grips with her past. The husband in turn abandons the child to search for his wife. The story is told from the son's point of view, exploring loneliness, abandonment, and a family's often stunted attempts at building relationships. Busch's disheartening view of the deterioration of relationships is central to the short stories in The Children in the Woods and Don't Tell Anyone (2000) as well as the novel Girls (1997). Girls is a continuation of the short story “Ralph the Duck,” which first appeared in Absent Friends. Jack, a college security guard, is asked to help solve the disappearance of a local teenage girl. He must cope with the loss of his own child—as described in “Ralph the Duck”—and come to terms with the widening chasm between his wife and himself, all while searching for the missing girl. With The Night Inspector, Busch returns to the genre of historical fiction. The novel is narrated by William Bartholomew, a Civil War veteran who is torn apart by the past both emotionally and physically. Bartholomew is forced to wear a mask after losing half of his face in the war. In an attempt to right various wrongs, Bartholomew tries to liberate a ship full of children destined for slavery. He enlists the help of a customs inspector known only as “M,” who is the author of a novel subtitled “The Whale.” The Night Inspector has been interpreted by some critics as a commentary on how novelist Herman Melville felt about the state of America after the Civil War.
Reception to Busch's writing has been generally positive, with many critics lauding his novels and short fiction for their precise use of language and uncluttered prose style. Reviewers have also praised Busch's compassionate characterizations and realistic use of dialogue, with critics such as Donald J. Greiner noting that Busch's works contain “… some of the most thoughtful dialogue written today.” Greiner has additionally praised the unique perspective that Busch brings to his modern love stories, arguing that “Busch is interested not in the cliché of the star-crossed lover but in the little tensions of the quotidian, the apparently insignificant slips and slides of the daily routine that eventually cause trouble in the kitchen, heartache in bed.” However, some reviewers have criticized Busch's attempts to expand characters and narratives from his short story collections into full-length novels, most notably in Harry and Catherine and Girls. Antonya Nelson has commented that Girls “does not achieve the same high level of synthesis” as “Ralph the Duck,” which she contends is a “short-story masterpiece.” Scholars have also commended Busch's works of historical fiction, complimenting the detailed descriptions of nineteenth-century America and England in The Mutual Friend and The Night Inspector.