Rebuilding and redecorating houses, attending to sick or dying children, trying to teach college students to write sentences that someone can understand -- these efforts are alike in being remedies. In this novel, the characters are not only trying to repair oversight and damage and effect some good, they are also trying to make work a ballast, to keep themselves from drifting into despair and loneliness.
Eli Silver is a pediatrician in an up-state New York town. His small son had died in an automobile accident, and his wife has gone away. Phil Sorenson teaches remedial English at a local college, a job similar to several others he has held, each undertaken with doged cynicism. He and his wife Annie are childless, and they move from job to job, town to town, "owning land and bringing houses back to health from swayed beam, staggered sill, rot and roof leak." Silver helps the Sorensons adopt a child, a kind and seemingly simple gesture that has unexpectedly violent repercussions.
"Rounds" is brief and unassuming; it nevertheless takes risks. For one, it is deliberately built up from matter-of-fact details the very ordinariness of which is insisted upon. Anyone who still believes that the life of a doctor is glamorous and dramatic will probably find "Rounds" startlingly eye-opening: "He takes throat cultures, peers down ears and up nostrils, looks at blinking eyes. His hands are on hardened stomachs, jumping pulses of the foot, distended muscles of the groin, swelled throats. He hears lungs that burble and hearts that roar . . ." and so on. Likewise, anyone who has ever tried refurbishing a house will be thoroughly reminded how lengthy and dreary a process it is to peel off old wallpaper.
Making a novel out of the relationship between the mundane details of work and the emotional weight they carry -- these people are working for their lives -- is hazardous because the exigencies of plot keep butting in, making the reader wonder whether all of this ennobling labor has any direction beyond making the principal characters worthy of sympathy. In other words, this is all very well but so what?
Busch justifies the emphatic flatness of this main narrative and saves it from being merely anecdotal by contrasting the "doing" lives of Silver and the Sorensons to the "teaching" lives of some of the members of the English department at the college, a generally sorry, feckless bunch. One would think that so hoary a contrast as this one wouldn't work, but it does, because Busch doesn't use it to point a finger or make of it an opportunity for satire. When the lives of Silver and the Sorensons and a deranged teacher intersect, the result is rampant melodrama, unexpected and exciting. But Busch doesn't mock the teacher -- a "bearded man with flared nostrils and six difference corduroy sport coats who taught comtemporary literature and wrote articles" -- even though he is an easy target, brutal and selfish in addition to being a snob. (One of his articles is called "The Book Review as Cultural Artifact"; he clearly deserves all the sympathy he can get.)
Busch has written a novel of steady compassion and charity. It engages and holds your interest because of its honesty and its candid treatment of "ordinary" people. Silver is no television saint in a white coat who can solve all know medical problems, and the Sorensons have their share of fears and weaknesses. "Rounds" looks hard at them and finds that they are not really so ordinary after all.