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When someone asked Emmanuel Siéyès what he'd done during the Reign of Terror, he replied, "I survived."Though the characters in the stories of Frederick Busch's latest collection don't have to contend with quite the same adversities as Monsieur Siéyès, nevertheless they encounter revelations which are, in our modern context, just as terrifying.And more often than not, they survive them.
These revelations usually involve the acquisition of knowledge--the sort of knowledge we frequently already possess, but pretend that we don't: parents have lives entirely secret from their children; there is a point beyond which damaged love cannot be repaired; people use other people even when (and as) they love them.The families in these stories create stories of their own, stories about who and what they are as entities--stories which are often at odds with reality, but which help them to deal with the disappointments and tragedies of that reality.Clearly, the title's allusion to Hansel and Gretel invites reading these as stories of innocence lost; and most of the reviews of this oft-reviewed and much-praised collection (it was short listed for the 1995 Pen-Faulkner award) make much of this connection.But these are also stories of the terrifying darkness of adult responsibilities recognized and faced, though not always triumphantly.
In "Bread" two children try to put their parents' house together (or perhaps take it apart) after their parents' accidental death; one seeks refuge in sarcasm and denial, while the other makes bread which will never be eaten and thinks on various kinds of "debris": the "still-smoking rubble" of his two-year marriage, the pile of clothes which has "nothing to do with how my mother wore my father's flannel shorts on Sunday to cook in..."In the stylistically innovative "Bring Your Friends to the Zoo," a couple (these are nearly always duets of longing) awkwardly try to dismantle (or remember?) their affair, while being directed by the narrator about how to move, what to see: "Once through the gate, face right.The Deer House, the Camel House ... As you face your right you see a path before you.Take it."The zoo would seem at first neutral ground, but we discover there is no neutrality, no one is the innocent bystander, the one-day tourist.In "Is Anyone Left This Time of Year?" tourism of another kind is explored when a recently widowed man visits a town where there are no more tourists, and once there, shell-shocked with grief, he merely repeats everything said to him, thus becoming an echo of his previous visits; absolutely passive, he is the compleat tourist, merely and only "seeing" the sights.
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Throughout this assemblage of fifteen previously published and eight new stories (all were personally selected by the author), we are time and again struck by the voices Busch can "do": subtle, convincing, all are virtuoso performances, and nearly all are about honest desires lurking beneath civil clichés.In "The Trouble with Being Food" an overweight but deeply compassionate suitor is confronted by the visit of his girlfriend's abusive ex-husband, a man who is an emotional and literal brawler--and, perhaps ultimately, a winner.This particular story is remarkable in many ways, not least in that it manages to make an academic--a dean, even--somehow physically threatening.
Yet finally, regardless the narrator (most are first person, and all have the feeling of dramatic monologues, many seeming a tour de force of negative capability), these are stories of the daily losses, the heartbreaks of little and therefore all the more deadly betrayals, with characters striving to "make" a life, a marriage, a son, to shove resistant reality into a more pleasing narrative.And most often it is stories themselves that get them through these betrayals, primarily the story called "that lie of family love."When one character suggests that these moments of mourning are "not the time for telling stories," another replies "This is why they invented stories."Busch's characters frequently discover resignation, but never acquiescence: "... and we continued--from jobs to other jobs, from the Village apartment to another one, from one hospital to another, from wound to wound, from childlessness to child to child.We tried."Which becomes as eloquent as Faulkner's "they endured."
Since his first novel I Wanted a Year Without a Fall (1971), Frederick Busch has been considered a master craftsman of prose; and the stories here are filled with scenes which can only be called gorgeous: "...the day was punctured by dusk, the sides collapsed, and ashen horizons leaked out, and there was the sun: red and swollen, grazing on the surface of the sea."In this age when more attention is often paid to what authors wear than the words they write, "master craftsman" is the highest possible praise; and with these new and selected stories, Frederick Busch continues to demonstrate why he deserves the title.