A contemporary of Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff, Frederick Busch was a master craftsman of the form; his subjects were single-event moments in so-called ordinary life. The stories in this volume, selected by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, are tales of families trying to heal their wounds, save their marriages, and rescue their children. In "Ralph the Duck," a security guard struggles to hang on to his marriage. In "Name the Name," a traveling teacher attends to students outside the school, including his own son, locked in a country jail. In Busch's work, we are reminded that we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors or in the mind of another. In the words of Raymond Carver, "With astonishing felicity of detail, Busch presents us with a world where real things are at stake--and sometimes, as in the real world, everything is risked." From his first volume, Hardwater Country (1974), to his most recent, Rescue Missions (2006), this volume selects thirty stories from an "American master" (Dan Cryer, Newsday), showcasing a body of work that is sure to shape American fiction for generations to come.
Short stories are always a hard sell in the book world, which is a shame, because they are such a demanding art form, and one which Fred Busch had long ago mastered. But Busch himself would have been the first to tell you that it took WORK, years of it, to finally get it right. I am reminded here of an autobiographical essay he wrote called "The Floating Christmas Tree" (in A DANGEROUS PROFESSION) about his early struggling days, newly married and living in a tiny New York apartment, where he would write late at night in the bathroom (so he wouldn't awaken his wife), perched hunched over on the edge of the tub, his typewriter on the toilet lid -
"I was twenty-two - and I was going to be a writer, I WAS a writer, I was going to get THEM to admit that I was a writer, and I sat in that awkward position and wrote my awkward prose."
I remember how I laughed when reading that, but by God Fred Busch kept at it. Witness these stories, every one of them perfect gems of the genre. And that same self-effacing sense of humor is displayed often, as well as the much darker themes which often fill Busch's fiction. In fact, Busch himself often shows up here, or thinly-disguised versions of him. From the clueless pudgy professor in "Widow Waters" to the desperate out-of-shape dog lover in "The Page," the well-meaning but buffoon-ish dispatcher in "The Baby in the Box," or the practical blustery father in "The Domicile," all the way to another concerned father of a returned veteran suffering from PTSD in "Patrols." Because Busch followed that oft-quoted precept of writers. He wrote about what he knew. And he knew about being a son, a brother, a husband, a father. And he was also a keen observer of human nature, and mined every aspect of what he knew and saw, often featuring small boys, abandoned husbands or disillusioned wives as his main characters.
Elizabeth Strout (another writer I very much admire) provides a most useful introduction here to Busch as a writer, a teacher and a man. But the stories themselves are the real stars. I called this book a treasure trove, and I will treasure it. My very highest recommendation.