(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Frederick Busch is a highly prolific author whose novels sometimes strike an uneasy balance between the popular and the literary. Girls is constructed very much like a thriller, with the epilogue coming first to tease the reader with a description of a crime scene, then a gradual unfolding of clues leading to a killer and the violent exposure of that killer at the end. At the same time, Busch writes of domestic concerns that would usually lie in the province of more literary works, and in this respect Girls concerns a working-class couple’s traumatization when their child dies of sudden infant death syndrome. As one reads the novel, one realizes that the title Girls works on multiple levels, combining perspectives of children that move from the criminal to the erotic to the concerned parental and back again. By having his amateur detective/campus policeman commit variations on the crimes he is investigating, Busch examines how domestic problems can erupt into crimes that affect the community at large. There are no easy distinctions in this novel between the criminal and the good.

Jack, as narrator, provides many of the novel’s oppositions. He is the Hemingwayesque man of action in an academic setting, a small university town in wintry northern New York State. Resentful of the professors’ glib way with words, Jack expresses himself best through his actions as campus policeman, where readers see the criminal underbelly of a university. His rambling account of his job—saving suicidal college girls, threatening drug dealers, breaking up fights between fraternity boys—provides much of the novel’s picaresque narrative style. Busch seems leery of approaching his two main plot lines directly; both take a long time to rise to the surface of the narrative: the abrupt death of baby Hannah that estranges Jack and his wife Fanny, and the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old girl named Janice Tanner that spurs the police investigation. The novel’s momentum thus stalls at times as Jack tours the university grounds. The reader may not notice that behind these seemingly inconsequential scenes, Busch keeps accumulating details that will become quite relevant later.

While Jack’s perspective works well on the episodic level, his inarticulate side creates problems in his home life. Jack and his wife, Fanny, are so caught up in their work that they scarcely have any energy left over to come to terms with the death of their child. Instead, they communicate nonverbally by refurbishing and taking apart the dead baby’s room. Combining Fanny’s stressful emergency-room work with Jack’s campus police work seems like an overly convenient way for Busch to add drama to their lives and connect the criminal with the medical emergency, but much of the time they are simply too tired to be very interesting as characters, and this sense of working-class fatigue drags down portions of the novel, especially in the middle, where the reader’s expectations of rising action are disappointed. Jack and Fanny’s emotional blockage makes the narrative seem repetitive. A counselor, Archie Halpern, keeps trying to get them to talk about Hannah with him, but Fanny consistently refuses. In her emotional sterility, Fanny becomes as frozen as the harsh winter setting of the novel (Busch makes this correspondence overt), and she disappoints any reader expectations of her renewal.

Jack, however, tries to renew himself by investigating other lost children to atone for the loss of Hannah, though his quest takes on an obsessive quality when he resorts to vigilante justice. He perversely tries to save in the outside world what he cannot fix at home, turning himself into a righteous scourge, but in the process he glancingly shares in the mentality of the criminals he hunts for. As he phrases it in the opening chapter:

I am talking here about being lost or found. You can be a small child and get lost, and maybe I will find you. God knows, I’ll try. Or you can be a large and ordinary man and get lost in everything usual about your life. Maybe you will try to find yourself, and so might someone else. It ends up being about the ordinary days you are hidden inside of, whether or not you want to hide.

Jack’s quest thus becomes a search as much for his identity as for missing children, but by fixating on the child molesters who take advantage of American spaces and community trust, he cuts himself off from the society he is expected to protect.

In his increasing monomania, Jack begins to neglect his police work and falls back on the methods of intimidation that he learned as an military policeman working for army intelligence during the Vietnam War. As a campus policeman, he is not supposed to carry a gun, and so he resorts to physical violence. Since he is the controlling point of view of the novel, it comes as a surprise to learn just how...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)