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Book review

‘The Stories of Frederick Busch’ by Frederick Busch

Robert Neubecker

‘The Stories of Frederick Busch’’ deserves to place this “writer’s writer” in the more widely read company of short-story masters like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, with whom he is often compared.

The collection, beautifully curated and with a smart and tender introduction by Elizabeth Strout, chronicles a prolific career and the “stripped down struggles” of domestic life in the “stony landscape of upstate New York” where Busch, who taught creative writing at Colgate University, lived until his death in 2006. Aspiring writers and discriminating readers will find inspiration and insight in the artistry of these 30 stories, sampled from about as many years.

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Busch, widely considered a writer of poetic fiction, is a remarkable stylist. The stories in this volume, as well as his novels, share a brave worldview: that beneath so-called ordinary existence lies the potential for the extraordinary, which sometimes manifests as violence and despair but often as kindness and generosity.

Within the struggles of “average” domestic life, Busch reveals, lurks nothing more glorious or frightening than our capacity for cruelty and for love. Goodness is not in short supply, but it takes work to find it. Reading Busch’s work makes this search delightful, if occasionally harrowing. As Strout rightly notes, these are “stories for grown-ups.”

The geographical isolation of upstate New York, where extreme weather is “like a curse,” fuels character and conflict in Busch’s work. Along the rural byways, behind the lit windows of the “small box-shaped hundred-and-fifty-year-old farmhouses that had rank-smelling cellars and sodden lintels and rotting beams,” live failed artists, awestruck and helpless children, lonely wives, and unfaithful husbands.

These are men and women who abandoned city careers to build families and pursue idyllic country life only to experience the inevitable disappointments of parenting, struggling marriages, and the realities of growing old. These stories show that under great financial and emotional pressure, love can spin to hate, and no life is immune from tragedy.

Busch’s subject matter reveals the existential struggles of characters that may remind readers of their neighbors, their friends, and possibly themselves. In “Rise and Fall,” a man fallen “to stink and disarray” visits his younger brother, a country doctor, and advises him to “turn your heart down, like a radio” rather than risk the pain of love. “Was everyone born to be separate? Was his baby brother here to tell him that?” In “Heads,” a mother losing her daughter to violent psychosis remembers the early years of her marriage in New York. “[I]t’s like watching a balloon that leaks while it zips in circles over your head, but in very slow motion, to see how those ambitions were mostly wishes and breath.” In “Widow Water,” a handyman is called to a professor’s house where a little boy, “wet-faced and stunned” is the object of his parents’ obvious abuse.

Readers will feel smoothly guided through the events of each story; Busch pays close attention to the placement of every word and renders the external and internal worlds of his characters with precision and restraint. In “Ralph the Duck,” which reads like a precursor to his excellent novel “Girls’’ (1997), an employee at an unnamed college (a “northeastern camp for the overindulged”) grieves the loss of his infant daughter with a stoicism that threatens his sanity and his marriage.

One night he plucks a female college student from certain death in a snowstorm and drives her to an emergency room. Along the way, he shares with the young woman slumped in the seat beside him: “I had a girl once. My wife, Fanny. She and I had a small girl one time.”

Busch’s characters are often in an active state of mourning: of the living and the dead, of youthful dreams, and their states of mind are revealed within extraordinary dialogue exchanges. They rage and destroy, fail in the enterprise of love, face a choice of fighting for what they love or abandoning it, and Busch makes these fleeting moments brutal and transcendent. In “Good to Go,” a mother on suicide watch with her young, war-ravaged son whom she barely recognizes and doesn’t understand “remembered how they’d clapped their hands to celebrate their boy’s first step. She remembered thinking that there, stumbling across the room, came the rest of her life.” Heartbreak might be the underlying theme of the human condition for Busch, but it is not the final word.

The notion of a “brave” writer is overused, but it suits Frederick Busch. He wrote about people who “lived in America and were making their way.” He saw bravery and cause for celebration in that simple struggle. These stories illuminate a generous belief that everyone’s experience — from that of an influential politician to the hard-working mechanic living paycheck to paycheck — is epic. Busch reminds us that no matter where or how we live, our lives are both unforgiving and magical, and that just as despair is ordinary, so too is hope.

Emily Rapp is the author, most recently, of “Still Point of the Turning World.’’ She can be reached at emily@emilyrapp.com.
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