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Second Glance: He Hears Them Speaking

“Money is a letter from the world to an author about his work.”
- Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch (1941-2006) wrote 27 novels and short story volumes from 1971 to shortly before his death from heart failure in 2006. He taught at Colgate University from 1967 through 2003. One can guess his students heard the above quote in many contexts and phrasings over the course of the semesters and summer school sessions. The world obviously sent Mr. Busch regular ‘letters’ about his work, over a long period of time. He received several prestigious PEN/Faulkner nominations, and the New York Times selected 1997’s Girls as a ‘Notable Book.’

  And yet, Busch has become one of those semi-forgotten writers who wait on the shelves to ambush you. Out of his 27 books no more than half a dozen are still in print, and even these are seldom seen on bookstore shelves. If you should spot one of these, you should purchase it and devour it, probably in private; probably with a grin of self-satisfaction.

That grin, at least in my case came from making an important and rare discovery. Frederick Busch (something in the tone of his work forces you to resist calling him ‘Fred’) is that singular writer whose prose is so hypnotic that it is the rhythm of his words alone that draw your eyes across the page. First person narrative is his special pleasure, and his protagonists capture your interest and compassion completely, even when their personal judgment is seriously askew. Yet each novel and story is couched in its own distinctive cadence and language. There is no prototypical ‘Buschian’ tone . There is no doubt that he writes ‘page-turners’, but you must turn them ssslllloowwwlyyy; to taste each verb and rejoice that he chose exactly that one.

This enthralling narrative skill has another, bracing side effect. You emerge from passages of careful observation into the clear light of dialogue with sounds unique to the character that’s speaking. It would seem obvious that well-done fiction contains people who talk differently from each other, but pay close attention and see how often writers fall back on a few speech rhythms to carry the dialogue, no matter who’s speaking or how that character thinks.

Mr. Busch springs his magic on you from his opening words. Look at the beginnings of three of his novels. The Night Inspector, a PEN/Faulkner nominee from 1999, is set in New York City after the Civil War. William Bartholomew is a former Union marksman (that is, sniper) whose face was shattered by a Confederate Minie ball. Busch wastes no time creating Bartholomew’s singular look

“No mouth,” I told him.

“If I’m to craft a special order for you,” he said.

“What is that, a special order?”

“Why, this.” He held up the sketch. I looked away from it “ The mask, Mr. Bartholomew,” he said. “I make arms. I make legs. I’ve never made a face, sir.”

Through the smell of resin and shellac, through the balm of pine shavings, came the odor of his perspiration, and I thought of bivouac, and our stench upon the wind. His thick, ragged , graying eyebrows were stippled with sawdust, as was his mustache. One of the knuckles of his broad hand was bloody, and the end of the other hand’s long finger had been cut away many years before and had raggedly healed.

“Yes,” I said. “Special. I thought at first you meant order of being. Race. A species of man, perhaps. A special order of nature. I cannot abide such speculation. We have collectively demonstrated, and not that many months before, the folly of such thinking.”

How effortlessly the aura of 1867 is created. How simply the credo of William Bartholomew espoused. The reader is dropped into a time where smells colored the environment in ways we must be taught to imagine and no craftsman emerged from his trade undamaged.

In 2003’s A Memory of War, psychologist Alexander Lescziak begins with a family memory whose alteration forms the fulcrum that twirls a plot involving layers of unfaithfulness.

It was the weather he remembered, as much as the faceless men who were said to come to the door. So often, when Ann Arbor was gray and damp in the earliest days of winter, when the sky was low above their high , gaunt house, when it nearly rained and when the rain, had it come, might have rapidly turned to a kind of driving snow that Januscz, Alex’s father, always called filthy, that was when – it seemed to Alex that was why – his father, the least talkative of men seemed compelled to chatter. He made vegetable soup for them by opening a can and adding water and boiling the mixture in a small white enamel saucepan, then pouring it into broad brown coffee mugs, splashing the stove and the counter.

Minimal commas keep the eyes from pausing, a technique that works equally well capturing a psychologist’s musings mid-patient, or capturing the rambling syntax of not-quite naturalized Polish parents. Alex feels guilt allowing his thoughts to roam while his patients divulge their inner pain, especially the patient who insists he is Alex’s brother by a different father.

In 1991’s Closing Arguments, a disturbing tale disguised as a ‘courtroom thriller’ , attorney Marcus Brennan doesn’t bother to take a breath in his ‘opening argument’

Let’s say I’m telling you the story of the upstate lawyer, the post–traumatic combat stress, the splendid wife, their solitudes and infidelities, their children, his client with her awkward affinities, the sense of impending recognition by which he is haunted.

You can see me , can’t you ? You can see me in my office after hours, after dark, after dawn. The bottle of ink, the sharp-nibbed pen, the pad of yellow sheets with their line after line.

How much more invitation do you need to plow into a book like that? This guy knows us, knows we want to hear every last thing about him. And he’ll tell us, too, even more than we thought we wanted to hear.

I hope you can see, even in these purposely brief opening snippets, how completely Busch crafts a language, a rhythm for each tale. The Night Inspector is the most distinctive of these narratives. William Bartholomew is far more than a businessman in a V for Vendetta mask. He hankers for a taste of what passes for celebrity in the late 19th century. When he recognizes one of his favorite writers in a local watering hole, he cautiously tells Herman Melville that he enjoyed his book The Whale very much as a tale of commerce, and wonders why the owners of the Pequod would hire a Captain who thought so little of making money. Melville of course is intrigued by this view. In the hands of another writer, this might have been just an ingenious bit of stunt casting. That Melville, and his family, emerge as a beautifully drawn portrait is one of the constant joys of this book. Indeed, his duties for the Port of New York, make him the ‘night inspector’ of the title, and the straw that stirs the drink of a very intriguing plot. That Busch tries to top himself by closing at a public reading by Charles Dickens is not surprising, especially when he can put Melville in the audience, reacting! But make no mistake, William Bartholomew is the fellow you come out humming at the end of the piece. His war stories are uniquely detailed and make an effective pendulum to his choices during a visceral denouement. But his special provenance in this particular book is his eye for 1867 New York City. Immerse yourself in this scene of cultural contrasts disguised as infrastructure:  

Did you know that in my time there were miniature broughams drawn through Central Park by teams of goats? Ragged children in cobbled together livery drew wealthy children in Eton suits and pinafores among the polished balustrades and through the arbor made of woven live branches. While rats ran under the sewers of the lower neighborhoods, such as mine, the Harlem River steamboat took the daytrippers over to Claremont, where the aqueducts from Croton rested. You could walk the promenade and see, high above Manhattan, the tall reservoir in which thousands of gallons of water were held for those in the higher reaches of the city whose delivery pressure might drop. In my district, of course, the water often ran dark. It was a broth of invisible creatures, and when a Swamp Angel, hiding from the police beneath the alleys, relieved himself, he was infecting the immigrant children who rested from their street games and drank at the pump.

Memory of War spins more on thought than physical action. Alex Lescziak is not a master of his mid-town Manhattan. He violates every tenet of his profession effortlessly. Not listening to his patients seems the least of his problems. Alex’s dalliances with a patient haunt him, but he seems powerless to stop. When that patient turns up missing, Busch steers us down a traditional murder-mystery path to only to make a deeper point about the unresolved quality of real lives And a seminal Busch moment occurs when a seventh grade Alex ‘borrows’ from a hopefully obscure poet to dazzle his pretty teacher. When he is caught, the responses of both teacher and student create a scene that Busch captures with prose that is syllable-perfect:

“You cheated. You lied to me. You failed to give a real poet, named William Carlos Williams, the credit, much less the praise he deserves.” Alex was thinking of the sleekness of her fingers as they danced to the tune of his condemnation. He did not care about a poet named Carlos Anyone. And he wondered, now, in the parochial-school classroom, if some of the amusement that tugged at her mouth was not provoked by her sense that he had possibly been sufficiently enchanted by her – even if he’d underestimated the range of her reading – to risk his academic neck in the theft of a poem that might impress her. All these years later, he was grateful, he thought, for the latent sexuality she’d both felt for and extracted from him.

This complex desire to please multiple women lies central to Busch’s reading of human relationships. Unmarried William Bartholomew pays a sexual partner to accept his maimed face but is ultimately drawn to another woman who accepts him for a different set of reasons. Alex Lescziak suspects his wife is unsatisfied enough to have an affair with his best friend, but his own repeated liaisons with a depressed female patient do not seem to come out of a desire for revenge. In Closing Arguments, attorney Marcus Brennan is Busch’s most extreme example of the conflicted male. The post-traumatic stress Brennan suffered from flying combat missions in Vietnam is every bit as emblematic as the mask that covers William Bartholomew’s face, but Brennan is tortured by the second woman in his life, a client accused of murdering her lover during a bout of S & M laced sex. Brennan’s frayed wife and troubled children have accepted his condition, but none of them is aware of his inclinations outside the family fires. Marcus takes his social worker client to the motel room where the murder was committed, and both parties wind up performing, more or less inadvertently, a variation on the type of sex that triggered the murder. Mr. Brennan seems only slightly surprised afterward:

We stood at my car and talked across the low roof. She looked very small. I could have been talking to my daughter, who was taller, in fact. Darker, of course. Looked like me, poor kid. Daddy’s girl, I thought. I smiled because I knew I wasn’t looking over the bright metal hood at anybody’s girl but her own. Mickey might be my daughter, I thought, but she wasn’t Daddy’s girl either.

“What?” Estella said. She tilted her head. Her voice was soft and hoarse. She sounded like a singer offstage, between sets. She was full of color, her lips looked heavier.

“I was thinking, you had your blood for the day.”

“Did I bite you?”
I shook my head. She smiled as if I were afraid of something that she knew wasn’t real

“Well, I’ll have to remember and do it some time,” she said.

  It’s a true Busch touch to avoid a semi-colon before ‘her lips looked heavier’. It would have slowed the cascade of gentle depravity.

Closing Arguments makes noises like a courtroom thriller, but Busch is too devoted to his characters to indulge in any Grisham-like multiplex moments. Kudos to the reader who has any inkling of what the final pages bring. You will be locked in the moment by Busch’s rhythmic language until the ending smacks you right in the back of the head. And trust me, you won’t mind it a bit.

So take my invite, take some of your money, and send the late Frederick Busch a letter that tells him what you think about his work. His family, including a son who fought in Iraq,will undoubtedly appreciate the missive. If you find some of his other 24 – well, just remember to slow down and enjoy the verbs.

___
Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

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