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The Betrayal

DON'T TELL ANYONE Fiction By Frederick Busch; W.W. Norton: 310 pp., $25.95

November 05, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

"Love is unspeakable," writes the 15-year old narrator of "The Talking Cure." But like the Beckett tramps who can't go on, must go on and so go on, Frederick Busch's heroes speak of love and talk themselves out of despair and into action through the 16 stories and a novella that make up his superb collection "Don't Tell Anyone."

Busch's themes are those of the usual observers--spying, confessing, absconding. These are stories of secrets, and secrets are lessons of sorts, sometimes to the listener, always to the teller. "A guy'll tell you love all you want," one 14-year old tells her mother after learning of the adultery of her father; "They say it a lot. It's like at a hockey match. They sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' they look like nice kids, and then they beat the shit out of each other."

Another lesson is learned by the maitre d' of "Are We Pleasing You Tonight?" who tries, in the course of an evening, to exorcise the image of an old flame discovered in the face of an accidental diner. "I had to look at her encyclopedically. I did. I looked at the way her throat creased when she moved her head. I looked at the folding of flesh at her wrists when she moved her flatware. I looked at the width of her shoulders, the size of her muscled upper arms, the flatness of her barely arched brows." Description, for Busch's heroes, is a secular catechism, a talking penance, if not a cure.

Busch's best stories are mysteriously economical, packed with half a dozen untold tales nested between the characters and their half-glimpsed futures. "A man rides into the night, he meets a mysterious stranger, his life is changed or it isn't. Nobody tells him which" is the condensed version with which Busch opens the haunting "Timberline." On the eve of his 45th birthday, Hank is standing in the living room of his apartment in Greenwich Village, trading ironies with Leslie. "All he could see of his wife . . . now was her face and brushy haircut floating behind him and to the left, seeming to sit on his shoulder like a second head. He smelled her breath, which was like a spicy vermouth. He smelled her soap, which reminded him of mangos."

Through this mist comes a vision of himself at 8, hiking with his father up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, in a vague effort to escape a mother who was drifting away from her family. At a particularly rocky bit above the timberline, the child Hank sees his father lifted by the wind over a ledge and out of sight. Thirty-seven years later, this vision returns and guides the middle-aged Hank out of his apartment, into his car and out of the city in a vague effort to regain something he cannot name. As he drives, his intentions to pull over into a gas station to call Leslie, to turn around and drive back to the city, are steadily waylaid by the call of the narrow road to the deep north.

Finally, approaching midnight, Hank pulls off the Thruway and, 15 miles up Route 20, finds a motel with an open bar. The mysterious stranger promised at the top of the story is a woman, of course, who drinks coffee as Hank drinks bar whiskey and matches one-liners in the way characters in bar stories do. At this point, or shortly thereafter, if this were a short story by, say, the poetic and erotic Richard Ford, the next scene would feature a bed or a parking lot or a shadowy stairwell. But in Busch's vision the encounter speaks more of death than of love. The woman is wearing a turban, her head is bald, her story is cancer.

And Hank's story, about his father, about his own mortality, is also death. And yet, at the moment when a kiss might be exchanged with the turbaned woman, Hank thinks of his own wife, asleep in the confidence of his return. "He thought how, when Leslie slept and he came late to bed, he patted her arm as he lay down. She said she knew in her sleep that he was there, so he did that. She slept with a leg protruding from the comforter, often in the coldest weather. Usually bare, her leg lay on top of the cover, its slender calf and extended foot an elegance he admired."

It is a gorgeous image, whether it changes the hero's life or not, as simple and bare as Busch's prose and yet with an elegance of experience and a story well told. Ultimately, for Busch's heroes obsessed with confession, life is not the private secret but the betrayal of that secret in public story. "If you don't have a story, there isn't an end," Hank imagines Leslie whispering to him in the night. "You don't get punctuation." *

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