Frederick Busch

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Busch, Frederick 1941–

Busch is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor. His self-professed major concerns in writing are characterization and point of view, and his fiction has been praised for its precise use of language and uncluttered prose style. The basic aspects of life, particularly family relationships, form the subject matter of much of Busch's fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 7, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Paula Deitz

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[The Mutual Friend is Frederick Busch's] scrupulous recreation in novel form of Charles Dickens and those who attended him in his last years.

The novel begins in [the] 1867 period with Dickens's public readings in America, and the dinner with Longfellow figures in the early pages. "Begins" is a misleading word here, for Busch's admirable technique is anything but linear. With a firm control over his material—he is faithful to the recorded facts and intuitive with his inventions—he presents this account of the years leading up to Dickens's death, and its aftermath, from different points of view. He divides up the task among several narrators….

Each narrator unfolds a separate episode, as well as a separate relationship to the Chief, as he was called, and in so doing reveals facts and circumstances which foretell events leading up to the time of his death. This intent is clarified with the frequent repetition of the question: "Is it not curious how what is written may later come to pass?" This manner of relating the story is both a strength and a weakness. The obvious strength is in the cumulative effect: each time one learns more of what lies ahead. (p. 99)

The weakness, if it is one, of this method, where all the pieces only tally up at the end, as in a dramatic work, is that it does not allow for a deep involvement on the part of the reader—who is occupied in simply keeping track of the pieces. But neither was this Frederick Busch's intention. It was more important to him for the reader to be informed of facts at the right time, facts calculated to make the greatest impact and to give the fullest meaning even at the cost of violating the time-sequence of the story….

Busch's prose is capable of conjuring up in only a few lines specific scenes which put our imaginations to work. His descriptions convey all we need to know….

What Busch's Dickens craves throughout these last years is affection, some permanent and meaningful tie; what he achieves is control—control over the lives and feelings of real people, as well as the fictional ones. He orchestrates whatever and whoever revolves around him, always changing and reshaping, even to the constant redecoration of his house. (p. 100)

[Just before the end of his] life of immense activity and intense personal relationships, Busch's failing Dickens faces his truth: "… success withal, a sense has come crushing upon me … of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I never made. And it may be that the man whose blood pours upon the sheets of the charity ward … still does not complain as I do." In the end, Busch has written a book about that larger theme of loneliness in high places….

Frederick Busch's novel … [expresses a] keen sense of personal loss and makes that loss so immediate that in the end the reader himself will forever be more intimately connected with the inimitable Dickens. (p. 102)

Paula Deitz, "The Final Farewell," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1978 by The Ontario Review), No. 9, Fall-Winter, 1978–79, pp. 99-102.

Peter Kemp

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Frederick Busch has called his novel about Dickens The Mutual Friend

(This entire section contains 232 words.)

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The Mutual Friend. An alternative title might have been Great Expectorations. (p. 61)

The Dickens reassembled in [The Mutual Friend] pulsates with energy, creative and destructive: fires break out around him as he uses up himself and others in a consuming commitment to his work. But if the figure is vibrant, it is also familiar. There is nothing new in this reconstruction of the novelist and much is romantically naive. A hackneyed stress falls on the usual polarities: the life-lover who frequented morgues and corpses; the bard of the hearth who broke up his home; the prosperous law-abider drawn compulsively towards the derelict and criminal.

Contrasts fascinate Mr. Busch. A few miles or a few years, he keeps emphasising, could make an immeasurable difference to the worlds in which people lived in 19th-century England. Dickens, seen as exploiting this, visits the warrens of the destitute as a sightseer. Alcoholic Dolby, on the other hand, becomes a resident of squalor, and the book heaps hideous details round him as he soggily decays. Filth and disease are itemised with an absorbed inventiveness lacking from the novel's characterisations, so that, finally, the Victorian netherworld and the mouldering bodies of its denizens come to dominate the book. (p. 62)

Peter Kemp, "Mouldering Bodies" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), in The Listener, Vol. 101, No. 2593, January 11, 1979, pp. 61-2.∗

Anatole Broyard

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After reading several … stories in "Hardwater Country" with only partial success, I was led to some … reflections. Here they are.

When asked how he approached his sculpture, Michelangelo replied that he simply cut away the stone surrounding his vision. In his stories, Mr. Busch offers us the chips and shards of experience surrounding his vision, and leaves it to us to deduce the vision for ourselves. To put it another way, most of his stories seem to be composed of the waste materials of action or decision.

His stories are sometimes reminiscent, too, of those records that feature a rhythm section playing the background to a melody so that you can accompany it on a solo instrument of your own choosing. (p. 201)

Anatole Broyard, "Reading a Modern Story," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 4, 1979, pp. 200-01).

Doris Grumbach

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[The stories collected in Hardwater Country demonstrates that Frederick Busch] is a skilled writer, as capable of using a woman's consciousness as narrator as a man's. He can write with equal facility and conviction in the first person as a plumber who comes to the house of an incompetent Jew to fix his pump; as an inventory-taker who works at a failing Midwestern bookstore and is at the same time in search of a brother he thinks has died…. Busch's method is to start with the commonplace…. [Using] ordinary materials he works shrewdly toward extraordinary endings. Every one of these 13 stories is interesting, and many of them are so beautifully controlled and moving as to be unforgettable. Busch has no single "style" or voice. Instead he adopts a new persona, a new voice, for every story. The result is characters and events of great originality.

Doris Grumbach, "'Light' Reading for Late Spring: 'Hardwater Country'," in The Chronicle of Higher Education (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), May 14, 1979, p. R10.

Robert Kiely

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The stories in "Hardwater Country" are not easy to categorize. Many have rural settings; some do not. Most are narrated by a male character; some are not. Some are written in a terse, broken staccato; some flow easily and naturally. None is boldly dramatic. Each deals with moments and details in routine days of mostly unexceptional lives.

The artistry of Frederick Busch consists of stripping away conventions of setting, plot and description, and carrying the reader swiftly into the crevices of particular lives. There is a sense of physical intimacy created between reader and characters, not for the purpose of revealing shocking or unspeakable mysteries, but in order to show the subtle shifts in mood and behavior that compose the rhythms of life.

Robert Kiely, "Entertainments and Absurdities: 'Hardwater Country'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1979, pp. 12, 25.

Amy Wilentz

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To judge by [Hardwater Country] anything Frederick Busch wants to convey in the short-story form, he can. He tells you the small, beautiful truths about the usual short-story subjects: family, neighbors, the different kinds of love…. Busch writes delicately and accurately about the power and impotence that children have within the family, as in "What You Might as Well Call Love," "My Father, Cont." and others. His stories are somber, but filled with hope; they are, in fact, uplifting, without any palpable attempt on the author's part to moralize. Busch deals with the things that matter.

Amy Wilentz, "Book Notes: 'Hardwater Country'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 7, September 15, 1979, p. 220.

Robert Buffington

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Despite the homely virtues with which their creator has endowed them, the characters in ["Rounds"] are often a little hard to take. Whether physicians, academics or undergraduates, they all talk too much and at unrelaxed levels of cleverness and cuteness. They leave little unsaid, no verbal shot unreturned.

The source of the problem is that Frederick Busch wants to display in realistic detail his characters in their daily rounds…. The author knows how certain things are done in the world, and is not content to leave his knowledge in the background. But as a novelist he also knows that conversation is not dialogue, that what two people say to each other in their daily rounds is generally short, inelegant and unmemorable. Here he must be unfaithful to the diurnal world, he must invent. Dialogue in a realistic novel is best saved for the moments of high drama.

There are a number of such moments in "Rounds." The main characters are a childless couple who want to adopt a baby, a pediatrician whose wife has left him, a woman who bears a child out of wedlock, and the father of the child. Mr. Busch stages their successive confrontations, and at the end he brings these and others together in a wild search for the kidnapped baby. In these scenes out of the daily round, the storyteller's ancient magic works once more and Mr. Busch draws the reader into his world.

Robert Buffington, "Three Problematic Novels: 'Rounds'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1980, p. 22.

Frances Taliaferro

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Frederick Busch has written seven considerable works of fiction since 1971…. His subject is that bare, forked animal, unaccommodated man, in his domestic particulars: the dark night of the soul, as we all know, is quite likely to happen while you're fixing the flashing on the porch roof. Busch vigorously accepts the incongruity of domestic tragedy and under-writes it, requiring his reader to pay attention and notice the small signs of human experience….

Rounds is full of quick, sure portraits, many of them funny, the best of them etched in acid: the young and spacy, the dying, the newborn, the loving and the merely horny, the middle-aged who muddle through and the emotionally illiterate of all ages. Busch, a wise, humorous, and perfectly unsententious writer, obviously enjoys his sorties into social portraiture, but his true subject is a moral landscape. Its boundaries are formed by cries for help, some of them uttered and some of them inarticulate gestures of everyday pain. Most practically, the "rounds" of the title are [pediatrician] Eli Silver's visits to his patients. As it turns out, in the round of human acquaintance every character is both patient and agent of illness, and sometimes physician as well. This fine, earthy, energetic novel faithfully records and celebrates the way we hurt and heal each other in "our briefly mutual lives."

Frances Taliaferro, "Death and Love," in Harper's (copyright © 1980 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the February, 1980 issue by special permission), Vol. 260, No. 1557, February, 1980, pp. 84-5.∗

Judith Gies

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Busch's craft, imagination, and versatility are impressive, and his work has met with critical praise, yet he has not found the wide audience he deserves. Rounds, more conventional than his earlier work, may change that; although I don't think it is his most interesting book, it may be the most fully realized.

In a sense, [The Mutual Friend] also pays homage to Dickens, who was similarly preoccupied with domestic complexities as well as being a master of certain plot devices Busch employs here. There are important differences. Busch's scope is not Dickensian; he explores grand themes—love, birth, and death—but on a small canvas. Contemporary social issues are peripheral. And there are no monsters … in this gentle and very human book. Busch's characters are victims of time, biology, and misguided affections….

[Scrupulous] attention to detail marks all of his work, but here it is put at the service of structure to produce a traditional well-made novel. The wealth of medical detail that surrounds pediatrician Eli Silver is impressive, and lends dimension to the central and prime mover in this novel of intersecting lives. (p. 40)

Rounds becomes a novel of suspense, as carefully constructed as any Agatha Christie. The atmosphere of impending doom thickens, lifts, descends agains with a whimper…. Busch uses a Dickensian cliffhanger technique—switching from character to character and scene to scene—until the whole cast, minor and major, comes together for a classic blowout and resolution. However creaky the device, it works, fashioning a frame for a novel of rare grace and generosity.

Busch is writing here about some of the domestic issues that engaged John Irving in Garp, but if Busch's approach is less spectacular, it has more substance. Irving asked important questions; Busch tries to answer them. Some readers may have reservations about the apparent facility of his solutions, which veer perilously close to contrivance, but his characters have genuine dignity and contend with real issues; their struggles leave little time for fashionable anomie or brittleness. Rounds celebrates the family as unabashedly as Dickens ever did, with a conviction and authenticity that should command recognition. (pp. 40-1)

Judith Gies, "Baby Power," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 2, March 17, 1980, pp. 40-1.

Allen Peacock

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Frederick Busch's deeply moving novel [Rounds] probes the harrowed lives of two middle-aged couples struck by recent tragedy…. Faced with a childless void, each pair must overcome the inevitable, stalking demons—the compulsive guilt, the overriding urge to fix blame, the gnawing sense of insufficiency—that bar them from the therapeutic restitution of their selves and the necessary redefinition of their relationships.

The Silvers and the Sorensons undertake this task in different ways, and Busch's alternation of the telling of their stories enhances his theme….

The men and women who inhabit the fictions of Frederick Busch have always been an unfortunate lot. They are made to suffer depredations few of us, thankfully, will ever have to bear. Fate repeatedly confounds them, dashing futures, haunting pasts, and yet they endure. Busch insists that they survive, and it is their gradual, tentative unfolding, that intensely anguished but determined reassemblage of shattered lives, that makes for such compelling, and continually heartening, reading.

Allen Peacock, "Books in Brief: 'Rounds'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 7, March 29, 1980, p. 56.

Keith Monley

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The mind simply boggles at the contortions of which [Busch] is capable. [In Hardwater Country there] is such a wealth of characters, and personae, and occupations, and locales, and craft at his disposal that I am inclined to forgive him his minor deviations from good form. I might prefer the Mink Snopes of The Hamlet to the Buddy Preston of "Land of the Free," but, dammit, Busch has made B. P. equally convincing. And though "Family Circle" milks dry the device of retardation, of gradually revealed information, by the end of the story we have become so submerged in the tangled and equivocal relations between the grandfather, his "woman-about-the-house," daughter, son-in-law, and grandson that we forget our irritation at being toyed with so liberally. (In fact, if I hadn't been looking at this with my baleful critic's eye I might not even have noticed.) The prose in "Company" sometimes founders in clichés and workshop devices …—though again, it is not the specter of workshop writing that stays with you, but Busch's facility with a female first person. (p. 491)

And in the male first person, stories told by a plumber, a construction worker, an elderly widower, a young boy. All done with the same ease and credibility. Stories unfold in Maine and England, New York City and upstate New York, Iowa and … let us not talk of limitations here.

Let us instead speak of virtuosity. Stories of anguish and comfort, love and jealousy and need, loneliness and claustrophobic familial congestion, insensitivity and warmth; the range seems to be limitless. You say you wish to be roused with a blow to the head, then these are the fictions for you. From one to the next they are wholly unpredictable; they are definitely high-voltage, whether it be an old man writing about the mysteries he is reading, or a brooding and savage Buddy Preston nearly cutting his leg off. "Long Calls," irony notwithstanding, in its relentless evocation of exile, should itself be sufficient to knock over your reading lamp. (pp. 491-92)

Keith Monley, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Reflections on Recent Short Fiction," in New England Review (copyright © 1980 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 483-97.∗


Busch, Frederick (Vol. 166)


Busch, Frederick (Vol. 7)