The Stories of Frederick Busch: “Reruns”

Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch

Frederick 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, is surely one of our most underrated American writers.  Last winter I rediscovered his moving novel, Rounds, an exploration of love, loss, and broken families. And at Barnes and Noble I recently pounced on a copy of the new book, The Stories of Frederick Busch, edited and introduced by Elizabeth Strout.

In his moving, graceful short stories, Busch chronicled the everyday lives of uncomplaining characters who work at unglamorous jobs (doctors, professors, plumbers, and night watchmen), make bad jokes over dinner (they love good food and wine), repair and renovate their own houses (you can learn a lot about home repair), and grieve over lost love and shattered families.
 In her introduction, Strout writes:

Be Brave,’ Frederick Busch admonished aspiring writers in an interview he gave in 2003.  ‘Keep your knees unbent.’  Courage on the page mattered to this writer, and those reading through this collection of stories will find Busch’s writing to be relentlessly brave.

Although the story, “Reruns,” may not be his most perfect, it is brave. You know this kind of story:  though you have little in common with the hero or heroine, it moves you so utterly that you  become one of the characters while you read the story.

In “Reruns,” the narrator, Dr. Leland Dugan, a psychoanalyst, learns that his wife, Belinda, a sociologist, anthropologist, and journalist has been taken hostage in Lebanon.  He is dumbfounded, because his wife is not a middle-aged spy nor a political activist.  How could this have happened?  He tells the officer from the State Department:

“But she isn’t really a journalist.  Of course, she does journalism.  But she’s a sociologist.  On her tax return she calls herself a teacher.”

PrintAnd I must admit this resonates, because I know so many teacher-freelance writers. Metaphorically, most of us have been “taken hostage” at one time or another for accepting an assignment to write about sensitive issues for the glory of some scatty (probably bankrupt and long defunct) publication or other.  (Let’s not romanticize print publications too much.)

Leland’s exasperated humor colors this story–how on earth could this have happened to his wife?–but it isn’t funny for a minute, and he knows it.  He picks up his teenage daughter Linda at school, and she asks, “But who wants her?”    The youngest daughter, Lissa, cries, and asks,”But who kidnaps mothers?”

Leland’s lover, Kate, a pediatrician, closes her clinic and comes to the house, bringing sandwiches, and that doesn’t make it easier for Linda, who in some ways is a younger more cyncial version of her mother, Belinda.  Lissa, who is only nine, accepts Kate and the broken family situation.  But they are all at a loss when they see Belinda on the hostage tape.

Leland doesn’t believe it’s happening.

I couldn’t have named one hostage.  That was when I realized how politics, history, and extreme distances had taken Belinda from our three traffic lights, the hour’s commute to her campus, the stores that stocked Sara Lee pound-cake and vitamin supplements, and the house where, upstairs, Kate embraced my daughters and waited for word.  Soon, I thought, people in so many lives will forget that woman’s name–the one who got snatched overseas.  Remember?

But as the story goes on, we learn Belinda was actually a very serious person, though characterized by Leland as “a pretty typical left-wing, feminist, institution-distrusting intellectual.”  We hear Leland’s resentment as he says that not shaving her legs was a political act for her.  It turns out she has been giving papers on women in misogynistic countries (like Lebanon) and has published an article in the New Republic. 

And as they watch the tape over and over,  Linda smokes cigarettes, without asking permission.  They all listen again and again to Belinda’s improvised addition of “It’s true” to her scripted “I’m safe.”  She also gives a personal message to her daughters.  She says nothing to Leland.

But think of those “L” names:  Leland, Belinda, Linda, Melissa.  They’re all closely related, whether they want to be or not.

What a poignant, clever story!

N.B.  Busch was the first writer to whom I ever wrote a fan letter, sometime in the early ’80s, and he wrote a lovely letter back. I taught Latin at a girls’ school, and was delighted to get his letter because the only man my students and I saw in the course of a day was a student’s bodyguard (and I had a rule, never flirt with a man with a gun).    I somehow managed to pair Busch’s letter with a letter by Pliny the Younger during a lesson.  It was a stretch, but you had to do things like that to keep their attention.    (I must say I was a charming, much-loved, incredibly bored teacher, and I think of my past self with affection.)