Frederick (Matthew) Busch Biography
Frederick Busch comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1941. Education: Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1958-62, A.B. 1962; Columbia University, New York (Woodrow Wilson fellow, 1962), 1962-63, M.A. 1967. Career: Writer and editor, North American Précis Syndicate, New York, 1964-65, and School Management magazine, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1965-66. Instructor, 1966-67, assistant professor, 1968-72, associate professor, 1973-76, professor of English, 1976-87, and since 1987 Fairchild Professor of Literature, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. Acting director, Program in Creative Writing, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1978-79; visiting lecturer in creative writing, Columbia University, New York, 1979. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1981; National Jewish Book award, 1985; American Academy award, 1986; PEN/Malamud award, for short story, 1991. Litt.D.: Muhlenberg College, 1980.
I Wanted a Year Without Fall. London, Calder and Boyars, 1971.
Manual Labor. New York, New Directions, 1974.
The Mutual Friend. New York, Harper, and Hassocks, Sussex, Harvester Press, 1978.
Rounds. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1980.
Take This Man. New York, Farrar Straus, 1981.
Invisible Mending. Boston, Godine, 1984.
Sometimes I Live in the Country. Boston, Godine, 1986.
War Babies. New York, New Directions, 1988.
Harry and Catherine. New York, Knopf, 1990.
Closing Arguments. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1991.
Long Way from Home. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1993.
Girls. New York, Harmony Books, 1997.
The Night Inspector. New York, Harmony Books, 1999.
Don't Tell Anyone. New York, Norton, 2000.
Breathing Trouble and Other Stories. London, Calder and Boyars, 1974.
Domestic Particulars: A Family Chronicle. New York, New Directions, 1976.
Hardwater Country. New York, Knopf, 1979.
Too Late American Boyhood Blues. Boston, Godine, 1984.
Absent Friends. New York, Knopf, 1989.
The Children in the Woods: New and Selected Stories. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1994.
Hawkes: A Guide to His Fictions. Syracuse, New York, SyracuseUniversity Press, 1973.
When People Publish (essays). Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1986.
A Dangerous Profession: A Book about the Writing Life. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Editor, Letters to a Fiction Writer. New York, Norton, 1999.
Ohio State University, Columbus.
I write about characters I want to matter more than my own theories and more than my own delights. The great problem is to face the fullest implications of one's insights and fears—and to sustain the energy to make a usable shape from them. No: the great problem is to sit and write something worthy of the people on the page, and the good reader.
* * *
Frederick Busch is a humanist with an eagle eye fixed on the family. Stricken rather than soothed by family ties, Busch's protagonists are kindred spirits with Ted Hughes's primal father: "Shot through the head with balled brains/ … Clubbed unconscious by his own heart/ … He managed to hear faint and far—'It's a boy!"'
Busch's concern with the vicissitudes of domestic life is shared by many of his peers—Richard Ford, Ray Carver, Andre Dubus—and is indeed a main preoccupation of post-World War II American fiction. What distinguishes Busch is his willingness to engage with history. Though Closing Arguments and Girls have contemporary settings, the protagonists, both Vietnam War veterans, cannot shake the burden of history in their own lives.
The Mutual Friend and The Night Inspector are actually set in the past. These novels are fictionalized accounts of the doings of nineteenth-century writers: Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, respectively. Though expertly rendered, the settings of these novels are obviously imagined; we cannot suspend disbelief here as easily as we might in the more familiar time and place of a book such as Manual Labor. This dynamic frees Busch to some extent from the demands of realism, giving him room to work figuratively and metafictionally. In both novels, he uses this space to explore the idea of disguise. Billy of The Night Inspector wears a papier-mâché mask to conceal his war-shattered face. In The Mutual Friend, the narrator looks back on his life as a series of "narratives I have perpetuated, in guises I have made." Busch here suggests parallels between the craft of fiction and the construction of personalities and "false fronts." Dickens and Melville are perfect protagonists, as writers preoccupied with the ways human beings trick each other.
Domestic Particulars is also set in the past. It blends more explicitly Busch's concern with history and the family. Set in New York City between 1919 and the 1970s, this family saga progresses amid the conditions of the great national social ambiance of these decades. Claire, Mac, and their son Harry strive to tap into the power of family affection. In the end, though, they achieve a less than expansive harmony. They are, after all, limited people of chary good will, to some extent outcharacterized by Busch's depictions of Brooklyn and Greenwich Village through the decades.
In both time and space, Busch is a true literary journeyman. He takes on a variety of settings and occupations, yet never feels like a tourist or an apprentice. He is equally alert to the countryside or the city, to the barn or the hospital. Natural settings save, as in "Trail of Possible Bones" (Domestic Particulars), or frighten, as in "What You Might as Well Call Love" (Hardwater Country). Either way, they are portrayed in minute detail. Likewise with work. Whether it's Prioleau making a television hook-up (Take This Man), or Silver and Hebner at their pediatrics (Rounds; Domestic Particulars), the enterprise is always vividly rendered. Work is often a small—though at times, illusory—grace in the fraught lives of his characters; thus Busch particularizes every type of labor with care.
I Wanted a Year Without Fall is legend passing from a father to his sleeping infant son. Its comic absurdity resides in parallels with Pilgrim's Progress and Beowulf. Ben recounts his adventures with Leo, who hits the road to escape urban destitution and a cuckold who wants his hide. For his part, Ben is fleeing a dead woman's voice. In a typical parody, Ben plays the Green Knight to an army of cockroaches. Here is the heroism of flight, not of the quest. Busch's anxious and ongoing preoccupation with the act of writing is central to the conclusion. Ben's last bardic utterance to his uncomprehending boy, "I will ask you to listen to an old time lay," is absurd indeed.
Another recurring concern in Busch's work is the death of children. In The Mutual Friend, the narrator reflects that "children die all the time, you know. It's 1900, and we ought to be learning why children die." Set decades later, Manual Labor makes it clear that modern medicine has not completely solved this "why," particularly in the existential sense. Anne and Phil Sorenson struggle to overcome the loss of their unborn child. Yet death pervades their lives. Abe, a vagrant whom they befriend in Maine, becomes the unhealthy focus of Anne's own suicidal attention, then kills himself. The novel esteems the victory of the couple over the nearly ubiquitous disintegration surrounding them. Their salvation is the manual labor of the two rebuilding an old house following the ruined labor of a childless mother. Phil's dictum, "You forget with your hands," is provided at the outset by the "child."
Rounds joins the Sorensons, Elizabeth Bean (a school psychologist), and Eli Silver, M.D. The Sorensons still need children. Elizabeth is pregnant, unmarried, and unwilling to abort the fetus. At the outset, Silver is all but ruined. His inadvertence has cost his son's life and, in the disastrous aftermath of the tragedy, his marriage. Busch separates and eventually intersects his characters' stories, a common strategy in his work. Silver intends to save himself from alcohol and emotional collapse by unflagging and expert attention to his pediatric practice, which is presented with surpassing realism. But only the Sorensons' affectionate regard and Elizabeth's love for him finally achieve that. Silver's scrupulous decision to initiate the death of a little girl in her final agony is realized with superb ethical authenticity.
In Take This Man, Gus has two fathers. At ten he goes to Anthony Prioleau, the biological one. His mother follows suit. The three are a family, strangely but abidingly. Tony and Ellen never marry. The novel gradually sketches in backgrounds—why Tony was a conscientious objector during the war, why Ellen had a taste for leave-taking. The other father remains in emotional but not physical range, never betrayed by Gus, who nonetheless comes to love Ellen and Tony unreservedly. Gus's first meeting with Tony and Tony's passing are Busch at his emotional best. Two ministers, the Reverends Van Eyck and Billy Horsefall (a parody of Billy Joe Hargis), are Busch at his comic best.
Invisible Mending is equally hilarious and poignant. Though Zimmer, a "Jew manqué," fears loneliness, his Gentile wife shows him the door. Her love isn't equal to his self absorption. For the first four pages it is 1980; it requires 214 pages to get back there. Meanwhile, Zimmer recollects his wondrous days with Rhona Glinksy, librarian and Nazi hunter, and his marriage with Lillian. Lil avers that Zimmer "can make a secular mystery out of the holiest simplicity." Zimmer recollects himself as "the treacherous amphibian who waddled on the Christian sands and swam in the blood of Jews." When Rhona reappears in 1980, times past and present merge. But Zimmer's young son provides a new and imperative focus. Invisible Mending brings Philip Roth to mind, both Portnoy's Complaint and The Ghost Writer. The novel is entirely up to the comparison.
War Babies, a novella, follows Pete Santore's "mission of ignorant need" from Illinois to Salisbury, England. Son of a now-dead father who was imprisoned for treason after his return from the Korean War, Santore seeks Hilary Pennel, daughter of a dead British officer with whom Santore's father had been held captive. Just below full consciousness, Santore needs to expiate his father's sin, which he fears pertained not only to America but to this hero. Thus the adult children meet, have a brief affair and discover the paradoxical likeness of their fathers' emotional bequests. Hilary has experienced her father's fatal resistance to his captors as abandonment, as Santore has his father's collaboration. Pennel's inadvertent gift to his daughter proved to be his vicious jingoist subaltern, aptly named Fox. After surviving the camp, Fox has held Hilary thrall to both his horrifying memories of the war and his sexual needs. This has cost Hilary an authentic life and a serious measure of sanity. This is a disturbing, morally insightful book.
Absent Friends is a strong collection of stories. Those in which the "friends" are family, either dead or at a distance, are especially compelling. "From the New World," the first and longest, masterfully realizes a middle-aged son's relation to his dead father. But variety, both of absence and point of view about absence, gives the collection richness in subject and perspective.
Harry and Catherine tells us more than we need to know about the enduring relationship of an unmarried couple, separated over a decade and brought together again through Harry Miller's employment by a senator from New York. The boss wants to work out his political posture toward an upstate country mall being constructed over the bones of slaves who had died of the plague after finding their way north on the underground railway. Far too serendipitously, Catherine Hollander's current lover, Carter Kreuss, is the contractor. Harry is honorably disposed to the dead and Carter's case for free enterprise is not without merit, especially given that the town fathers had long since secretively moved the bones from their original locale, a fact not worth much to a presidential aspirant. The novel is principally shaped, however, by the bond between Harry and the independent, morally centered Catherine. Their endless, over-subtle exchanges strain patience. The novel's implausible integration of the characters' situations strains credulity.
In Closing Arguments, the burden of memory gives a menacing edge to family life in small-town America. Mark, a Vietnam vet, lives the ordered life of a Main Street attorney in upstate New York. His family life isn't so ordered, however. His marriage is on the rocks, his teenage son recalcitrant and troubled. Furthermore, these matters must compete with Mark's daily, horrific memories of the killing he did in Vietnam, some of it indiscriminate: "once in a while I got to ride down howling and make popcorn out of people." So when Mark takes on the case of young Estella, accused of murdering her lover, his sense of recognition closes in. He becomes obsessed with her. The trembling hold he has on work and family life is ruined. He and Estella become comrades in destruction, the ruthless soldier-self finally uncovered.
In Long Way From Home, the protagonist, Sarah, also upturns the domestic order of her life. Suddenly seized with an "emergency feeling," she abandons her husband and their six-year-old son to search for her biological mother. Cleverly, Busch explores the effects of Sarah's departure through shifting points of view. Her husband, Barrett, pursues her, at first heading in the wrong direction. His self-destructiveness along the way suggests that his journey is more about facing his own personal demons than finding his wife. Meanwhile, Sarah successfully finds her natural mother. But Gloria, an itinerant nurse-naturopath, is a dangerous discovery. The pull of "blood ties" that drove Sarah to find Gloria turns out to have a cruel kickback. Gloria kidnaps Sarah's son. The blood tie Sarah seeks becomes poisonous.
In Girls, Busch explores the most daunting aspect of "why children die." In "Ralph the Duck" (Children in the Woods), the seed story for Girls, a young couple's daughter dies in infancy. This loss, mysterious and painful as it may be to Jack and Franny, is at least an "innocent" one. In Girls, the couple's grief is compounded first by the frivolous-seeming suicide attempt by a local college student—whom Jack saves—and then by the search for a missing 14-year-old girl. Jack's heroism, however impressive, can't erase the profound loss of his child. The awful twist of fate that took his daughter from him is compounded by the horrific will of the girl's murderer, who, like Camus' Caligula, grants no mercy in his quest to mimic and compound the cruelties of fate.
—David M. Heaton, updated by
Lisa A. Phillips