Novelist Frederick Busch, 64

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Frederick Busch, 64, a writer whose novels and short stories were esteemed by critics but who never quite found a large following with the general public, died of a heart attack Feb. 23 at a New York City hospital. He lived near the central New York town of Sherburne.

Since 1971, Mr. Busch had written 27 books and came to be known, perhaps in sympathy with his middling sales, as the quintessential "writer's writer." Novelist Scott Spencer called him "a first-rate American storyteller," and Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley praised him as "a serious and gifted novelist" whose stories and novels "tend to be quiet, reflective and subtle."

Mr. Busch's modestly scaled domestic dramas were sometimes compared with the fiction of John Cheever, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. But there was no typical "Busch style," since his protagonists were men and women, Jewish and gentile and sometimes historical figures.

Many of Mr. Busch's novels and stories were set in his native New York City or in the Upstate valleys and college towns where he had lived for nearly 40 years as a professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. In recent years, he increasingly explored the past in his fiction and was known for his thorough research as he immersed himself in the professions his characters practiced.

He was particularly admired for his dialogue, his careful observations of the details of everyday life and his subtle prose style. In a passage from his 1994 story, "Stand, and Be Recognized," he described a character who "coated her words with secret nuance and each syllable she spoke fell to the tablecloth and glistened."

He said he resolved to become a writer in fourth grade, after a teacher pinned a poem he had written on the classroom bulletin board.

"I'd like to be remembered as a really honest, minor writer of the 20th century," he once said.

The son of a lawyer and a teacher, Frederick Matthew Busch was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and received a master's degree from Columbia University in 1967.

His primary literary influences were Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens and Herman Melville -- Mr. Busch even made Dickens and Melville characters in two of his novels.

Early in his career, he wrote on a typewriter propped on the toilet seat of his one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. He had completed three novels before he finally published "I Wanted a Year Without Fall" in 1971.

He received the American Academy of Arts and Letters fiction award in 1986; the PEN/Malamud Award for "distinguished achievement in the short story" in 1991; and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award in 1995, for "The Children in the Woods: New and Selected Stories."

From 1967 to 2003, Mr. Busch taught at Colgate, living on an old sheep farm and writing every day in a converted barn. "I don't feel that I've earned the air I'll breathe every day," he said, "or the right to walk on the ground I walk upon, unless I've made good language: words that are useful to someone other than me."

Despite his respected reputation, Mr. Busch did not always receive favorable notices. In a 1993 review in The Washington Post, Donna Rifkind complained that Mr. Busch's "Long Way From Home" was "a long way from either serious fiction or genuine entertainment."

But four years later, Rifkind found much to praise in Mr. Busch's "Girls": "Its pitch-perfect dialogue, skillfully contrived plot and authentically wintry atmosphere are all exceptional, but a great deal of its strength comes from the moral complexity of its characters."

In November, Mr. Busch wrote an article for Harper's magazine about his concerns at having a son, Benjamin Busch of College Park, fighting in Iraq as a Marine officer.

"I almost watched no television reports because of Ben's final injunction to us: 'Don't watch the news,' " Mr. Busch said in an interview with National Public Radio. "We lived in fear 24 hours a day."

Besides his son, survivors include his wife of 42 years, Judith Burroughs Busch of Sherburne; another son, Nicholas Busch of Syracuse, N.Y.; and a granddaughter.

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