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A Trail of Bread Crumbs : THE CHILDREN IN THE WOODS: New and Selected Stories, By Frederick Busch (Ticknor & Fields: $21.95; 338 pp.)

March 20, 1994|Patrick McGrath | Patrick McGrath's most recent book is the novel "Dr. Haggard's Disease."

One of the strongest stories in Frederick Busch's new collection, "The Children in the Woods," is "Berceuse," and one of the strongest moments in "Berceuse" comes when an awful Jewish woman called Miriam tells her goy sister-in-law Kim that Kim's recent miscarriage occurred because of the Holocaust. "Oh yes," she said, "Your baby died because you murdered us. Every one of you murdered our dead. Ask your priests. Ask your dead God. The fruit of your womb is death."

Miriam is one of the few monsters in the book. But she is thematically central in that she tells Kim the story of "Hansel and Gretel," who are of course the eponymous children in the woods. The fairy tale has a charged significance for Holocaust-obsessed Miriam in that the witch in the gingerbread house wanted to cook Hansel in an oven. For Frederick Busch the tale has a much broader application: His characters are all children in the woods, the woods being life in general, marriage and childhood in particular. Some are Jews, some not; some stories take place in New York City, more often the setting is a small town Upstate, where the winters are hard and men can be better at understanding plumbing systems and the innards of pickup trucks than the minds and hearts of their wives. Not that the women are much clearer about why relationships survive and why they fail. In Frederick Busch's world everyone is looking for the trail of bread crumbs that will lead them out of darkness and into the light.

Many of the stories here depend on a sort of loose, suggestive symbolism--they pivot on an object, or an idea, or a small but crucial incident meant to transform the tangle of experience in which it occurs and so give resonance and design to the whole. A good example is "My Father, Cont.," in which a child (Busch is never afraid to tell a story from the point of view of a child or a woman) describes how his parents in their unhappiness bicker about some books the mother wants the father to donate to a sale. The family goes for a drive in the country, the car gets stuck in snow and the father uses the books to try to get traction under the tires. The books are shredded by the spinning wheels, but to no avail. The child cries and is hugged. A sort of peace is restored.

This is a vignette of family life in which the story's weight and meaning reside almost entirely in its few symbolic motifs: a family dynamic is established, but all that actually happens is the drive in the country and the car getting stuck. The great risk with such fiction is that if alchemy doesn't occur--and too often with this type of story it doesn't--what's left is slight and inconclusive.

When Busch establishes a strong dramatic structure, however, and uses that as the housing for his insights, the result is often fiction of a very high order indeed. A good example is "Ralph the Duck," the sort of rich, dense, tightly constructed piece of writing that reminds you that perfection is possible, if not in the novel, at least in the short-story form. This is Frederick Busch at his best, managing the country he knows, the season, the characters, the themes, bringing them into exquisite, understated harmony in a story whose narrative accelerates to a powerful and vivid climax, and then segues delicately into a haunting, pathetic resolution; a story with heart that fits together like a piece of fine machinery. It's about a security man at a campus near a small town somewhere in the Northeast in winter. Busch brings his character to life in a few deft strokes, establishes a rich inarticulate emotionality in him, and then constructs in an utterly unforced and flowing manner the events that will draw out his vulnerability, sorrow and physical courage in what culminates literally in a life-and-death drama. In the end a man who's lost a child is able to save a child, and the power rests in the story's utter lack of sentimentality, the tone of quiet irony that has the effect, paradoxically, of lending it an almost unbearable pathos.

Equally powerful, though more formally complicated, is "Dog Song," which begins with a scene of utter horror. Police break into a mobile home whose owners are suspected of cruelty to dogs. They find the place "alive with excrement and garbage. . . . Madness crawled the walls. Lloyd, the husband, had written with dung his imprecations of a county and state and nation that established laws involving human intercourse with beasts. Twenty-six dogs were impounded, and the couple was heavily fined by the judge."

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