Long Way from Home takes its title from a nineteenth century spiritual, made popular in the 1960’s by Peter, Paul and Mary, about a person who sometimes feels “like a motherless child.” Motherless children and being a long way from home are important motifs in this novel whose point of departure is the 1960’s, the decade when two of its major characters are born and three others make significant choices that will affect the rest of their lives. In most respects, however, Long Way from Home is a novel of and for the 1980’s and 1990’s, especially in Frederick Busch’s choice of subjects:
adoption, abortion, child abuse, dysfunctional families, parenting, career women, job dissatisfaction, American public education, individual (as distinct from civil) rights, the kidnapping of children by family members. The list is long enough for at least a week’s worth of Oprah Winfreys, Phil Donahues, and Sally Jessy Raphaels but perhaps a bit too trendy, too much the stuff of talk shows and pop psychology. Flirting with the merely topical is but one of several risks Busch ran in writing Long Way from Home. Another is making a novel from what was originally a twenty-page short story. (John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is an excellent example of what can be achieved when a writer works in the opposite direction, toward compression rather than, as in Busch’s case, expansion.) Yet perhaps the greatest risk was in writing, or at least publishing, any fiction at all after so fine a novel as Closing Arguments (1991). How could Long Way from Home seem anything but a falling off, further evidence that for American writers, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once pointed out, there are no second acts?
For about a third of its length, roughly three of its seven parts, Long Way from Home does disappoint. Quick-cutting between the centers of consciousness of its six main characters, Busch creates a certain degree of excitement, but neither the technique nor the narrative stimulus-a woman’s abandoning her husband and six-year-old son and the man’s abandoning that same son in order to find her and bring her back-is enough to make the story catch fire. Sarah has gone off to meet the birth mother she has never known but has now located through a newspaper advertisement. Barrett has driven from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to Burroughs in central New York to leave their son with Sarah’s parents while he drives to Santa Fe, where he (wrongly) believes Sarah has gone because that is where they honeymooned and briefly (before Stevie) were happy. The grandparents know that there is a good chance neither Barrett nor Sarah will ever return and that raising Stevie will become their responsibility. The reader knows all this and more but is not made to care about the characters, Sarah and Barrett especially. Whether Stevie will swing out on a rope over the river and drop and drown, as his grandmother fears, generates some narrative interest but hardly enough as the novel struggles, perhaps deliberately, to bring its several characters and their respective but interwoven plots into focus.
It is so hard to care about Sarah and Barrett because they are so clearly made for Oprah and Donahue; one is a sadomasochistic adopted child and the other a sadomasochistic orphan, but neither is horrifically sadomasochistic in the grand, murderous style of Mark Brennan and Estella Pritchet of Closing Arguments. Sarah is not so much evil as irresponsibility incarnate. She is not in fact running to her birth mother, Gloria Dodge, except to accuse; she is running from husband, son, parents, and an inconsequential “career” as an interior decorator. No one and nothing can ever be quite enough for someone so self-indulgent and self-pitying, this despite her living in a world in which, as the novel makes amply clear, there is plenty of real pain, physical and psychological, to go around. When she leaves Stevie, she makes certain to leave a note in his pocket. She might have done worse; she might have left a Barney tape instead. Gloria may be right; Sarah has sought her out only to prove that families do not work. Yet Lizzie, her adopted mother, is also right: “You ungrateful goddamned bitch, hurting us all like that.”
Barrett is no better, playing the architect of limited horizons to her interior decorator of no consequence, orphan looking for prospective parents to her adopted child resenting all parents. In his fairy-tale inspired dreams, he battles to save the family that his violent movements threaten. In such a rush to reach Sarah that he dumps Stevie on his grandparents’ laps, he nevertheless finds time to stop at the West Virginia home of Sarah’s college roommate Sheila Mason, who, divorced, is as lonely as Barrett and about as desperate, but a bit more self-aware and mature (how else could she play the part of mother that...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)