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SOMETIMES I LIVE IN THE COUNTRY by Frederick Busch (David Godine: $15.95; 224 pp.)

April 27, 1986| Mark Harris | Harris is the author of "Bang the Drum Slowly" and other novels. His most recent is "Lying in Bed."

Idon't always know what to say about a book--"It gave me a certain feeling . . . I liked it because it haunted me . . . took me somewhere strange I've never been." I might eventually say, as I think I must say with this book, that I admire it, it is a worthwhile work, the author is a serious man, but I wonder whether I can honestly tell anybody he or she ought to spend $16 for a book that seems to me so much to be admired for its craft, but so stingy with its emotion. It achieves a triumph of technique, the mastery of a certain task it set for itself, but there's not the excitement of responding to someone living life very hard through crisis.

There's this boy. His name is Petey. Petey's father, until recently a New York City policeman, has broken with Petey's mother and spirited Petey into cold country in northern New York. Petey's father's desire to remain concealed, and thus to thwart Petey's mother's search for them, presents one of their major problems. They are being--for complicated reasons--harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, but they cannot report their harassment to the local or federal authorities since such an action will reveal their past.

Petey, as a matter of fact, misses his mother a great deal, though he loves and enjoys his father, who reciprocates Petey's love as well as he can under difficult circumstances. Father also loves the company of women, which Petey cannot entirely understand. A great deal of father's private business becomes uneasily available to Petey, who eavesdrops through the ventilation system upon father's conversations with visitors.

Petey, for those reasons, and for other reasons perhaps less obvious, is suicidal. In the opening lines of the book, he puts the barrel of his father's revolver into his mouth and pulls the trigger. "He didn't want to pull the trigger, but he did. He closed his eyes, and that made it easier. He tightened on the trigger and the sight came up onto the roof of his mouth and he heard the click inside his head. Then he took the revolver out of his mouth and wiped it on his shirt. He put the safety back on and went down the hill across from their house." This is a gripping way to begin, no less effective for its being in the tradition of the time-worn "narrative hook," nor is this the last time Petey plays Russian roulette with himself. I wait each time for the terrible report of his losing.

My problem is that I don't really see things as Petey presumably sees them, and I think the reason is that the author has achieved such technical virtuosity that his story is clouded by the limitations of Petey's viewpoint. Petey has been compared by boosters of this book to masterpieces of viewpoint--to Huckleberry Finn and to Holden Caulfield--and I do not want to condemn a book because of the enthusiasm of its supporters. But the creators of Holden and Huck supplied their creations with the art or techniques of translation, a filter, a process whereby the very nature of the boys' diction makes me see not only what they see in their limited range but what I, as an adult observer, would see if I were there. They offer double vision, double hearing, as this book by Frederick Busch somehow does not.

Busch has not struck the balance between Petey's comprehension and mine well enough for me to understand what Petey sees and hears in his terms as well as in mine. This is a difficulty facing an author who is ambitious to achieve a style that shall be interesting, not merely workaday. In the end, the style of the book attracts notice at the expense of the clarity or the liberation of emotions of the characters. For it is Huck's and Holden's emotional liberation that endears them to us, not the clever styles of their tales: Those are phenomena we study afterward, once having absorbed the emotional power of the work. In this book by Busch I feel myself invited to study clever technique without first being captured by the power of its narrative.

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