IT IS CHEERING, in view of many instances to the contrary, to find an experienced novelist as alert as is Frederick Busch to the deep differences between the needs of the novel and those of the short story. In this, his second collection of stories, Busch knows just what he is about. Without the slightest sense of constriction, the stories have both beautiful form and that pace, whether disguised or overt, so vital to the short story.
In "Making Change," in three sentences of what might seem fairly irrelevant detail, we are precipitated into the essence of the story:
"When Don Sturdy got lost in Glacier Bay, he was with his Uncle Amos and his other uncle, Captain Frank. They were guided by an Indian who had studied at Columbia University. They were written about by Victor Appleton, who had also written the Tom Swift stories, and whose books were shifted in the sweet easy night from arm to arm by Vinnie McManus, who was dressed in khaki shorts and a khaki shirt on which, among other insignia, was the one that showed him to be the Librarian of Troop Eight Oneida Council Borough of Brooklyn during the year of the energy crisis, 1948."
Not one of the characters mentioned above, save Vinnie McManus, reappears, but we are where we need to be; and Uncle Amos, Captain Frank, and the Columbia-educated Indian guide will be of no help whatsoever when Vinnie is lost in spaces more mysterious than those of Glacier Park.
Thirty-four years later, Vinnie realizes that his need then, and later, had to do with "control and absolute dream-stuff . . . It had to do with need and greed and desire. It had to do with taking, and nearly always feeling almost out of, control."
Need and control -- attained, or slipping, or lost -- ar the focal points. Love, always needed, always desirable, always ambiguous in promise and failure, is so beset by circumstances and vulnerabilities, by the ludicrousness of mistakes, that it is never a constant. Need is always there; and the greatest need is for control over one's own future which so dizzyingly becomes one's present. Sex has, in general, become a medication, essential but with drastic side effects. Love cannot carry a marriage or an affair over the shoals of personality and circumstance; it can only make the foundering more painful. And the most pitiful and sinister aspect of the collapse in confidence is that the misery or failure of another becomes a sort of self-justification: I'm a mess; I didn't make it. But neither did he, or she.
In "Rise and Fall," when after genuine but hopeless attempts at communication, the brothers Jonas and Jay are faced with what they revealingly assume to be the battering of an infuriating adolescent by her mother -- Jay's lover -- each man, in his different way, feels a subterranean relief in someone else's debacle.
Almost every story ends in a departure, from a belief, a person, a place -- a departure without a destination in any real sense. In a very short, practically flawless story, "Critics," a boy learns that tales told him by his father, not as truths but as friendship offerings, are not even that -- they can be trashed in a minute as counters in an adult game of hostility. In the very first story, "The Settlement of Mars," a young son, sensing in the words "separate vacations" all that is ahead of him undefined, scary, and immense, is almost literally blinded by the fact that no one will define what he senses, and that words are used as hiding places. Fidelity -- to the young, the dead, those present and absent, to the concept -- is a need; one rarely filled, and then in damaged ways.
One might assume that these stories, filled with universal dissatisfaction, with scarred yet clinging relationships, with lethal intimacies, with derailed, ferocious and pathetic adolescents, would be both depressing and monotonous. The fact is that this is simply not so. Busch's great gift is that he can make the reader care, not just about what happens to these people, but about the people themselves. Because his characters are neither smug nor artificial, nor without some mangled hope, the total effect of the book is not a sort of viscous depression, but an experience of value and insight. The examination of the results of these particular American boyhoods is not a sententious all-purpose diagnosis. In spite of the stories' unity, Busch is not telling us This Is How It Is. He is telling us that this is how it is with these human beings, and we can judge for ourselves how universal or endemic is their plight. He has taken a very solid risk in a collection avowedly on a common theme, and that risk has inevitable results. These stories should be read with time between each, and while this is in general true of all collected short stories, it is peculiarly true in this case. The obverse of the risk is the advantage of weight, the cumulative effect the stories bring to bear.
Busch depends on our sensibility; what we get are our cues, and our satisfaction is in our response. Description -- that albatross for the neck of the short story -- is detailed, but flexible and full of motion, whether it is of driving by night in a snowstorm, or the revelation by a brief look in a house, of the identity of its inhabitant. The ability to compress a trait, an emotion, a crisis in tension, into a sentence is one of his special gifts; and perhaps the book's least successful story, "The News," is the only case in which he is conscious of length. But actually it is difficult to imagine Busch writing an uninteresting story.
He is subtle without pretentiousness, and often very funny. Too Late American Boyhood Blues has the feel of life, and if it says little of cheer about our predicaments, it never settles for them. And that at least is a good preliminary. The aging boy, haunted by the loss of his beloved and native Can-Do talisman, has missed the trail, the signal. But even though uncles Amos and Frank and the Columbia University Indian won't arrive to handle the crisis, the boyhood diagnosed as dangerous, may not in the end be fatal.