THE TROUBLE with American novelists is that they wish to be great, not good; and consequently they are neither. That, anyway, is Gore Vidal's opinion, one of those clever half-truths which a novelist like Frederick Busch turns upside down. Busch has always aimed at being good, not great, and if he keeps on being so good, he will surely be recognized as great.
Take This Man is Busch's eighth work of fiction in 10 years. His previous books have been published to virtually unanimous acclaim--and then, somehow, ignored. There is nothing flashy or even fashionable about his fiction. His themes are mostly domestic, his techniques realistic, his characters ordinary men and women who try to lead just, intelligent, loving lives. Ho-hum, says the Average Reader, and slides down the rack to the books which promise an experience Larger Than Life.
Busch's fiction is very much like life; he always gets the scale right. He deals in drama, not melodrama; sentiment, not sentimentality; love, not romance; passion, not panting. This is not to say that his characters are paragons of virtue and wisdom. They are subject to the same delusions and vanities as the rest of us--and, in time, they have to pay for them.
Time is the medium of every novel, its element and environment. The novelist has to convince the reader that the story he reads in six hours was a lifetime in the making. He has to make him believe that nothing essential has been omitted and that the lives he has figured forth are complete. He has to make the reader feel that what remains, after time has done its eroding work, is the only thing that could remain, the single and lasting image which all the years have labored to reveal.
Take This Man is the story of a small family, man, woman, and child, that lives beyond the law. The man is Anthony Prioleau, a southerner whose uncertain origins --he is suspected of having Negro blood--prove to be a destiny. He never quite fits anywhere. He's the sort of man who manages to foul up everything he touches-- and who, therefore, touches very little. In his love affair with Ellen LaRue Spencer, it is she who must take the initiative, who must, literally, take this man.
She takes him first in 1944, when Prioleau is working as a television technician--he's been let out of prison, where he was serving time for conscientious objection-- at a desolate and insignificant Army post in Illinois. She arrives there by accident, though Prioleau works up the nerve to declare that he's been waiting for her since puberty. "Pewberty," she corrects him. "Not pooberty; that sounds ugly and it's incorrect." Ellen is a schoolteacher, small, spirited, and resolute. She is on her way to California in a gasping car to meet and eventually to marry another man; Prioleau feels seduced and abandoned when she continues her journey.
In 1956 he sees someone else he has been waiting for -- his son, the issue of that first seduction. The boy, Gus, steps off a bus in the same Illinois town where Prioleau is now working as a TV repairman. "I heard you were my father," he says simply, not at all surprised to find Prioleau meeting him. Nor, a bit later, is Ellen surprised to arrive in town and find that Prioleau is still in love with her. She takes him again--Gus will always think that the three of them slunk eastward to Maine--and they live together as man and wife. "I liked the idea of being married to someone who couldn't find me," Ellen tells Gus when he's grown, "and of not being married to someone who could."
The invisible lines that bind these lives together work again in 1963, when Gus runs away to an island with a pair of activists who intend to bring the military to its knees by blocking radio transmissions. This section of the novel, while a little pat and pointed--Prioleau was a conscientious objector, remember, and Gus' attitude toward one of the activists, a strong-willed woman like his mother, is surely a kind of replay of Prioleau's first feelings toward Ellen--is nevertheless uncanny. Both Prioleau and Ellen, pursuing Gus independently, arrive on the right island, where they discover each other in the darkness. Ellen, hiding in a deserted house, hears someone approaching and picks up a piece of wood to defend herself. "Oof," says the shape as it staggers through the door, and Ellen swings. The "timbre and tone" of the voice register, and she says, "Tony!"
"'Pardon?' he said, so politely that she laughed.
"The shape backed up, came forward, and when she felt his fingers, she seized them. 'Me,' she said.
"And of every question he might have found to put, he said, with delicacy, 'Ellen? Is it okay I'm here?'
"She pulled herself up along his hand and arm and felt for his face, then neck, and held on. He did too, though uncertainly, as if she were fragile. She knew at once what his question meant, and the tension of his wrists and forearms, but she said nothing in reply, wondering if she still needed the advantage which, even here, she felt herself insist upon."
What else happens? They bring Gus home, time runs on, and the last section of the novel is set in 1980. Gus has grown up, but the essential configurations of this triangle of man, woman, and child haven't changed. All I will say about the ending of Take This Man is that it seems at once inevitable and mysterious, as life itself gives way to death itself.
This story encompasses 40 years, and the durable image that emerges is that of a profound, lifelong union between a man and woman. It's a love story, though the word love is hardly mentioned. When Prioleau does say it, Ellen is as short with him as she was when he mispronounced puberty. Yet love is the only thing Prioleau doesn't foul up, the one thing that lasts.
The minor characters in Take This Man are brought on without a fuss; they're just there, like the landscape or the weather or thought or desire or the TV. It's all there, all without a fuss. The details are so right that they're unobtrusive; Busch creates a large and recognizable world with effortless grace.
He has a reputation as a writer's writer, but I don't think it can be very long before he's better known as a reader's writer. If you're the kind of reader who reads authors, and not just the current season's big books, you should think of adding Frederick Busch to your list. Start with Take This Man.