Frederick Busch’s Rounds is a classic, or nearly one.
Busch (1941-2006), a critically-acclaimed writer who won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 1986, and the PEN/Malamud Award in 1991, seems never to have been heard of. Like Andre Dubus, another neglected writer, Busch vividly chronicled love, loss, and the broken American family, often from the male point of view.
Busch’s beautifully-written novel, set in upper New York State, is both poetic and plot-driven.
A group of characters are linked by loss.
Eli Silver, a pediatrician, has lost his child in a car accident, and his wife has left him. He drinks too much: his only relationships are with his colleagues and patients. He tries to redeem himself by saving children, and much of it is by doing ordinary, superficially unheroic rounds. He diagnoses strep and bronchitis, gives allergy shots, counsels mothers on the common cold and hereditary insanity, and palpates lymph nodes of a little boy riding a tricycle at the hospital.
In the case of a young girl dying in pain of cancer, saving her means helping her die by secretly dumping out the nutriment IV bags and giving her more than the allotted pain meds. (The nurse, Ada, agrees with his decision.)
Silver is not the only sad character. Annie and Phil Sorenson have moved from New England to get away from the scene of Annie’s two miscarriages Tall, shaggy Phil, described by Busch as “a grammar jock,” has a new job teaching remedial writing at a college. Annie thinks about having children.
In the first chapter, “Manual Labor,” the Sorensons are described rebuilding their house and their lives.
They had moved through New England, owning land and bringing houses back to health from swayed beam, staggered sill, rot and roof leak. And here they were now, in New York State, not all that distant from New England and yet a place somehow more exhausted, a countryside of oxbow rivers and Indian mounds, more scabrous than New England, with a dull shimmer of what has failed.
While Annie is recovering from depression and repapering the walls at home, Phil is trying to form relationships with minority students who, recruited to play football, have few academic skills and are far from home in a white college town.
He assigned them textbooks they wouldn’t read, told them about essays they’d be unable to write, gave them his office hours, and suggested they all go home. The chairs scraped, notebooks with the college seal flapped shut, and Phil waited for someone to ask to be advised. No one asked….
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I’ll just mention a few other important characters: Lizzie Bean, a single college counselor who is pregnant; and two men linked by psychosis, Horace L’Ordinet, an English professor with a frightening chemical imbalance, and the college president’s son, Weeks II, driven crazy by drugs.
Busch writes about ordinary people who must confront tragedy and heal.
I found Rounds by chance at Brentanos when I moved to an eastern city for my first “real” job and had seemingly endless time to browse at bookstores. The endpage has my old address, and it occurs to me that I’ve lived so many places I could make a poem out of my addresses.
4700 Bradley Blvd.
(there are so many of them)
And frankly I can’t remember most of the street numbers.
I wrote a fan letter to Busch from this address. He answered.