Frederick Busch’s writing resonates upstate

“What to know about pain is how little we do to deserve it, how simple it is to give, how hard to lose. I’m a plumber. I dig for what’s wrong. And what I think of now as I remember pain is the fat young man and his child, their staggering house, the basement filled with death and dark water, the small perfect boy on the stone cellar steps who wept, the widow’s coffee gone cold.”

That is the first paragraph of the late Frederick Busch’s short story, “Widow Water.” The four sentences reveal what we find in many of his piercing stories: a strong beginning, as well as interest in and respect for the lives of ordinary people.

Busch, who died in 2006, wrote prolifically, often about central New York, where he lived (he taught at Colgate University in Hamilton). His central New York stories focus on the difficulties of living in the country — flooded basements, sump pumps and rural poverty are often present — and the clumsy, poignant relationships people form in those conditions.

The plumber in “Widow Water” describes the fractured and cluttered basement where he works, with the owner and his son watching him: “Stone foundation cracking that was two hundred years old, vent windows shut when they should have been opened to stop the dry rot, beams with the adze scars in them powdering almost as we watched … packing cartons and scraps of wood, broken chairs, a table with no legs.” The reader learns it is not just the house that is breaking down; the family is, too.

In “What You Might as Well Call Love,” Marge and Ben struggle with money, raising their son, keeping their basement dry, contemplating having a second child, and caring for each other. Sitting down after another very wet end-of-winter day that has not gone well, Marge says, “Why don’t we skip the fight we don’t even feel like having, and discuss what to have for dinner.”

At this time of year, here in the Adirondacks and the Champlain Valley, what Busch wrote about the weather, “My Father. Cont.”, sounds familiar:

“If anything was growing just because it was March, it was growing under cover like the rest of us.”

The second paragraph of this story opens with a typical Busch interest-grabbing hook: “My father was a doctor and an ex-convict.”

Sometimes Busch jabs at the students he might have met at a school like Colgate, and maybe his colleagues. In “I am the News,” a son remembers his arguments with his always-a-Marine father, a Korean War veteran: “I was a left-wing political science major, and possessed of not much knowledge as well as the ability to speak as if that were not the case.”

Again and again, he wrote more than 25 books of short stories, novels, and non-fiction. Busch frequently chronicled the lives of upstate New Yorkers. I became aware of him early in his career because when he served as director of the University of Iowa’s program in creative writing, our family rented his Poolville, home. When he passed away in 2006, the New York Times obituary reminded readers of his “outpouring of precise, poetic novels and stories [that] delved into the seemingly unspectacular but ultimately profound experiences of people and families grappling with existential crises.”

“Since it was calendar spring but actual winter,” was Busch’s description of this northern month. His writing helps readers get through it.