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Darkness Visible | RICHARD EDER

GIRLS. By Frederick Busch . Harmony Books: 288 pp., $23

March 16, 1997|RICHARD EDER

In subzero weather, several dozen diggers work their way across a snow-covered field in upstate New York. It looks like Breughel, but it is Hieronymus Bosch.

Police and townspeople prod and sift for the corpse of Janice Tanner, a 14-year-old murdered by her middle-aged lover. They wield their shovels and crowbars with exemplary delicacy. "The idea was not to break any frozen parts of her away."

The opening of Frederick Busch's despairing morality tale has a cinematic brilliance. As it proceeds, the morality gleams darkly. It is the cinematic or perhaps the theatrical quality that flags, unable to support the weight of the story itself.

"Girls" is set in and around the campus of an expensive New York university not unlike Colgate, where Busch is a professor. Its narrator and protagonist is Jack, the campus police chief. He is tough but sensitive--he could be the genre detective of a hard-boiled thriller. Sardonic wit, that is, macho allure and a capacity to take and hand out brutal physical punishment. World-weary, he pulses with the barely contained violence not of an evil man but of a good man who has seen too much evil--which he rages against, which he can least bear--and too much hypocrisy.

He is blasted with his own private evil: the death of his infant daughter, Hannah. In that utterly recognizable parents' inferno, a night of endless crying and no sleep, he and his wife, Fanny, had taken turns stretching their nerves and weariness to the snapping point. With one stretch too far, a desperate rocking became a desperate shake. The result was officially accepted as crib death. Not, though, by Jack and Fanny: two decent, loving people, each protective of the other, whose marriage over the course of the book freezes and dies from silence.

Knowing how thin is his own wall between darkness and light, Jack looks out and finds darkness everywhere. Patrolling the winter campus in his Jeep, he seems to see nothing but child victims and victimizers. There are the drugged-out students, rudderless amid the wealth and flaccidity of parents and society. There is the young all-American drug runner who works for a crime ring.

There is a waif whom Jack finds freezing in the woods above the school. She is suicidally blurred by pills and the sexual advances of a professor. There are the seductive professors, blue-jeaned and anoraked, whose sense of entitlement stretches seamlessly back to their youths in the '60s and '70s.

From the world outside trickle police-scanner reports of other children: missing, abused, killed. And finally, through Archie Halpern--the college psychiatrist, Jack's counselor and his only campus confidant--comes a request. Janice Tanner, daughter of a local Baptist minister, has disappeared, and the police are searching for her with no particular hope or diligence. Can Jack, a cop and a bereaved parent, act as a bridge between an uncommunicative police bureaucracy and a family's anguish?

"Girls" tells of Jack's deepening involvement in the search and its dreadful conclusion. Other stories branch out: Jack's splintering marriage; his run-ins with a patronizing, unscrupulous professor; his deepening affair with another professor; his violent pursuit of the campus drug dealer and an even more violent reprisal by the dealer's bosses; and an oddly disconnected incident involving a librarian's refusal to provide information to the Secret Service detail assigned to a planned visit by the vice president.

Jack speaks, and Busch writes, in a blaze of anger and conviction. Their message: Children must be protected. Instead, in our society and in what it imparts, they are betrayed. (The investigation evokes a poignant scene: the nicely raised Janice, preparing to meet her seducer, spending her baby-sitting money on sexy black underwear. Two sets of underwear, so that one can be washed out and dried overnight. Junior Household Hints meets the Marquis de Sade.)

Even that ostensibly altruistic institution, the university, betrays its children, and Busch writes with stony knowledge and desolate detail of its sins of omission and commission. The force and seriousness of the theme come through flawlessly, as we have come to expect from this morally engaged writer who seeks to portray the tenderness of human love--conjugal, parental--and the world that rends it.

His artistry is sometimes impressive, but it does not always match his sensibility. The author's rage against what is wrong, his sorrow for the wronged, can make for an oppressive presence. Having set up his characters, he judges them, condemns them and redeems them. It is almost as if he had set them up in order to judge them: As if, by righting them, he could right the real world.

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