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Can You Love a Woman Who Scares You? : HARRY AND CATHERINE A Love Story by Frederick Busch (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 270 pp.)

February 25, 1990|RICHARD EDER

Harry: Brave, funny and a little tubby, battered by life into understanding but not yet out of outrageousness, is as truly a modern male hero as a very large-size writer such as Frederick Busch can devise. And Catherine, brave, funny, long-legged, big-shouldered, sexy and intransigent, is as truly a wonderful woman.

In their 40s, each loves the other more than either has ever loved anyone else. Twice they have lived together and then split, what with Catherine's instinct for independence and Harry's for indecisiveness.

"Harry and Catherine" tells of the third try. Catherine has been living in Upstate New York, running an art gallery and sharing her house with Carter, a local contractor she is only fond of. Middle age is almost here; her sons are almost grown, and the thought of Harry, though suppressed, is like a debt put off.

And then Harry, an incipiently balding Lochinvar out of Washington, goes north in a rented car, leaking as much trepidation as exhaust, but with an impetus both stirring and comic. "He was," Catherine will reflect, "the most hesitant brave man she had known."

In a wonderful display of timid purposefulness, Harry barges in, kindles fire out of Catherine's initial reluctance, reclaims the love of Catherine's two sons and passively squeezes Carter right out of the house. He will give up his job as a senator's aide; he will free-lance and write poetry; he will fit in with the life Catherine has set up for herself, and help her work her vegetable garden.

As we wait to see what will come of all this, there is a splendid liveliness en route. Few writers could match the portraits of Harry and Catherine; we are like sensors attached to their breath, medullas and heartbeats. At their best, they are portraits in action.

Harry's charge, of course, is the supreme action, and the book is strongest in its first part. We are told of his previous efforts to be with Catherine. The first lasted for months, but Catherine, free of a sadistic husband and with two children to rear, could not take the commitment.

The second, briefer, was triggered by a postcard giving Harry her new address. Harry crash-dieted before going to see her. It is a nice detail, but its real strength lies in the fact that Randy, Catherine's oldest son--who has always insisted that Harry was the right man--reminds her of it.

The new charge, the final charge, consists of two attempts, in fact, and they are all awkwardness. Harry is as loaded down with worry as Alice's White Knight, but he stays on his horse. He is all but paralyzed with fear of being rebuffed. "How can you love a woman who scares you? How on the other hand can you love one who can't?" he asks himself. Entirely unsure of his welcome--when he'd phoned, he'd spoken only to Randy--he parks in the driveway and broods:

"Here I am naked in your gunsight, sweating in your gravel drive, looking no doubt like the last traveling salesman in America with nothing to sell except his dazed and rumpled self."

There is the ordeal of sitting down to dinner with Catherine and Carter, of breaking through her deliberately social manner, of breaking through Carter's initial suspicious politeness to an outright confrontation. Embarrassment is more grievous than fear, absurdity a greater ordeal than danger.

In a series of highly charged but wonderfully exact scenes, Catherine's veneer of stiffness is pierced not so much by anything Harry does as by her own longing. As for Carter, his air of male strength and competence is another veneer. He aspires, from a background of deprivation, to gentility; he makes a point of knowing his wines. Instead of throwing Harry out, he--after a comically muted face-off--walks out himself. Victory lies in not budging.

Carter will figure in another defeat, told in a subplot. He has won, and staked a season's income on, a contract to asphalt the parking lot of a local mall. The site, it turns out, was once a burial ground for blacks in the days of the Underground Railroad. Local conservationists successfully oppose the construction. Harry had suggested the controversy as an opportunity for his senator to get involved, and as an excuse to travel north. Now, not wanting to hurt Carter further, he tries for a compromise, but it is too late.

The theme has its own interest, but it links awkwardly with the principal story; it feels like an interruption. We want to know what will happen to Harry and Catherine.

With Harry's quest more or less successfully concluded, there now comes the question of holding onto it. In the later chapters, the focus swings to Catherine's painful struggle between wanting a lover and a companion for middle age and beyond, and her vital need for independence.

Interspersed among scenes of domestic contentment are others in which Catherine works tenaciously to get her garden stripped before the frost, sometimes going out at night to work by moonlight. Harry helps, but it is like a test, not so much of him as of her. How does she feel having him there?

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