FREDERICK BUSCH is a shrewd and sympathetic chronicler of modern American family life. "Is visiting old parents like visiting old friends?" he speculates at the beginning of a characteristic recent short story called "Obits." With a clear-eyed affection for his characters reminiscent of John Cheever's, he proceeds to examine the mutual concerns between a middle-aged couple and their elderly parents, their own children, and one another. Yet like Cheever, Busch is never content merely to tell and retell his own stories. In his latest novel, he has ventured deep into the heart of a strange backwater of the Northeast to explore the themes of family tension and racial prejudice in the unlikeliest of places. The result is a powerful account of coming of age in an isolated and forbidding pocket of contemporary rural America.
Petey, the 13-year-old hero of Sometimes I Live in the Country, is a very unhappy boy. Just transplanted from Brooklyn to a remote upstate hamlet, he's as homesick as a country kid cooped up in a Flatbush brownstone. He misses his streetwise pals and their day-long games of stickball and playground hoop. He misses the hustling pace of big-city living. Most of all he misses his mother, who he believes has run out on both him and Pop.
It might not be so unbearable if Petey could find one thing to like about his new home in the country. But everything about rural life, whose highlights seem to be a weekly shopping trip to "the Ames" and a two-week binge in the late fall when boozed-up hunters take to the woods and blast the begracious out of anything on four feet, depresses him. Nor does he have much use for the unsophisticated "bimbos and cornheads" at his new school, where, to make a bad situation worse, Pop has landed a job as disciplinarian and truant officer.
In fact, like the jilted lover of "Goodnight, Irene," from whose lyrics Busch's book takes its title, Petey's begun to have self-destructive thoughts. On several evenings he's even sneaked Pop's revolver and a single live bullet out of the house and played a secret and desperate game with himself. "He closed the gun up. This time it made a low click. He spun the chambers . . . and put the gun into his mouth and gagged on it. Then he pushed the trigger with his thumb."
Pop has some secrets of his own. A hard-bitten ex-detective who loves Petey fiercely without really understanding him, he spends the long fall evenings poring over old country maps and local histories. After school and on weekends, he haunts the back roads and outlying settlements. By degrees, Busch reveals that Pop is searching for remnants of early communities established by fugitive slaves, in order to write a master's thesis in history and become a "real teacher." But just as he begins to make some headway with this research, the tobacco-chewing Reverend Staynes, racist pastor of the nearby Faith and Beholden Tabernacle, mounts a vicious campaign to drive him out of the area.
AS THE relentless upstate winter sets in, Pop and Petey are harassed by anonymous hate calls. ("Colored is the curse God laid upon the race.") Battered pickup trucks and snowmobiles cruise ominously past their place at all hours of the day and night. An impromptu chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross on Pop's property, and two members of Staynes' sect catch Petey out one night and terrorize him. When the psychotic minister bursts into the high school library spouting cockeyed Latin and demanding that "Negro filth, unChristian filth, homosexual filth" be removed from the shelves, Pop ejects him by the hair and shirt collar to the applause of the students; but Staynes' revenge is swift and terrible, and very nearly ends in a lynching.
But wait. Is it really credible that even the most ignorant members of a modern-day farming outpost between Syracuse and Binghamton would try to murder a good and innocent man because a crazed demagogue told them to? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. It doesn't happen every day, of course. But it still happens, and not just in Harper Lee's Alabama or Faulkner's Mississippi, as could attest the black man who moved into my own tiny New England village with his family not so very many years ago and was promptly shot at by local nightriders.
Sometimes I Live in the Country isn't going to delight everyone with an RFD mailing address. As much as I admire the book myself, for that matter, I can't help wishing that Busch had shown us more of that substantial majority of rural citizens anywhere who do not retail hate, ban classics, shoot fawns, burn crosses, or string up newcomers. Even Petey's wonderful guidance counselor, "Miz" Bean, and Pop's elderly black friend, Mr. O'Nolan, are outsiders who tend to perceive Reverend Staynes' bailiwick as "another country."
Yet, as Petey suddenly realizes one day in social studies class, prejudice has always been an inescapable part of American history, in the provinces and in the greatest cities, just as it has been an inescapable and tragic part of human history everywhere. Frederick Busch is far too skillful a storyteller to resolve all of his characters' problems at the end of his novel. But with this sobering insight, Petey has made a giant stride toward understanding one of the hardest and saddest truths of living not just in the country, but anywhere at any time.