It's late in the afternoon, and Frederick Busch is having dinner in a restaurant high atop the stadium where the Florida State Seminoles play football. The sun is low in the sky, glinting off the empty bleachers, shining in the bearish Busch's narrowed eyes. "This is it, I think," Busch slowly says. He is not referring to his half-finished blackened grouper, upon which he continues to feast. "This book did me in. I put everything I had into it. It's dark. It's full of sex and violence, and it scares the hell out of me. You'll see," he says, shrugging. He is scheduled to read from the book in an hour, to what I expect to be a packed auditorium. "I'm not sure I'll ever write another one."
There are four other writers at the table. From us comes a chorus of "aw, c'mon," a yawp of "yeah, right." I have heard Tim O'brien say the same thing after every single one of his books. Four or five years later, you wander into a bookstore and there's a new O'brien.
Busch keeps busy with his grouper. He waves to a waiter to lower the blinds on the window. When his squint is gone, his face is impassive. "I mean it," he says. "I don't think I have anything left." Again he shrugs. "I'm not trying to be self-effacing," he says. "When you hear it, you'll understand."
The book in question is his grandly entertaining The Night Inspector, a novel of post-Civil War New York, told from the point of view of William Bartholomew, once a brutally effective Union sniper whose face has been hideously mutilated and is hidden, most of the time, behind a pasteboard mask. The book featuresnotonly a Creole prostitute who exposes Bartholomew to a fetid underworld of murderers, whores, and the lingering postwar slave trade (a largely untold story) but also the sad husk of a man that is the late-career Herman Melville. Melville is working on the seamy docks as a deputy customs inspector (hence the title), living with the utter failure of his literary career (which, with his books long out of print, he has nearly given up) and the death of his son. A colleague of mine called Busch's book a thinking person's The Phantom of the Opera. I'd call it a thinking person's Cold Mountain, except that it's probably a mistake to describe a book so rich, obsessive, and original in terms of other books.
It does not read like a book written by a spent author.
Busch has published 23 books in the past 28 years and has been, in that time, among the most consistent craftsmen around. In addition to that extravagant output, he's started and abandoned several novels, including a couple "finished" ones that, when he told me about them, sounded pretty good: one, a continuation of the story begun in his paean to the hard, enduring rewards of married love, called Harry and Catherine; another, a football novel he researched for a year, including spending several months inside the New York Giants training camp, which featured as its protagonist a character modeled on Hall of Fame linebacker/loose cannon Lawrence Taylor. I tell Busch both sound like books I'd buy.
He shrugs. "No, you wouldn't," he says. "Because they both stink."
"Oh," I say.
It's stunning to think that both of these novels were finished and shelved this decade, since it's been during that time that Busch has, for my money, gone from good writer to great.
After 1990's Harry and Catherine came 1991's Closing Arguments, a post-Vietnam War novel that also succeeds at being a thinking person's legal thriller. It was a commercial and artistic breakthrough for Busch. His next two novels Long Way From Home and his bestseller Girls are both psychological literary fiction of the first rank and page-turners the best crime writers would envy.
If Busch, 58, does hang up his keyboard, it will come at the conclusion of a flurry of activity four books in the past three years that, collectively, do an admirable job of summarizing what Busch has been about as a writer.
There's Girls, his best-known book, a novel that not only shows Busch to his most entertaining advantage but also had as its origin the short story "Ralph the Duck" a small masterpiece that, years before it was subsumed into Girls, had become widely anthologized.
Last year came A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. The essays in the book include explorations both of Busch's experience as a writer (all writers, wannabe or otherwise, male or female, should read "The Writer's Wife" and the hilarious "Bad") and of some of the writers Busch (a professor of literature at Colgate University, where's he's been a fixture for a quarter century) both reveres and teaches in his seminars, including Melville, Dickens, and Hemingway. To read Busch's "Hemingway's Sentence" is a good way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hemingway's birth and to learn to become a better writer.
Now we have The Night Inspector. It's a mark of Busch's integrity that he didn't follow Girls with something like Girls 2. That said, The Night Inspector is very much a literary thriller. On top of that, it's a companion piece of a sort to his 1978 novel The Mutual Friend, in which Charles Dickens is a character.
Finally, there's the just-published anthology Busch edited, Letters To a Fiction Writer, which features letters from the likes of such consummate writer's writers as Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price, Tobias Wolff, and many more. It's a generous, remarkable collection; I can't think of a book with more good advice to writers per page. The book (in which Busch, by way of introduction, writes a magnificent letter of righteous, barely restrained outrage to the editor who, 30 years ago, sent the then-unpublished Busch a snarky rejection letter) is a public display of what Busch has been doing quietly for years: teaching young writers, boosting the careers of young writers, doing what he can for his fellow practitioners in the art of failure.
To wit: As we get to the auditorium for his reading, Busch pulls me aside. I direct a large creative writing program, and Busch whispers to me some tips about writers currently teaching at other universities who might be enticed to come here. Moments before an event devoted to his own work, he's going out of his way to help other writers. All across America, there are writing programs that are better because of advice from Fred Busch, writers who have good jobs because of letters from Fred Busch.
And then he takes the stage.
As he reads the scenes of squalor and sex and liquor and blood, the crowd hangs on every word. In the unlikely event that The Night Inspector is Frederick Busch's final novel, he's going to leave America's readers in the same state he leaves the crowd on this hot spring night in Florida.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including most recently the novel The Veracruz Blues.