It’s the dead of winter at a private liberal arts college in northern New York. Forty-four year old ex-Army MP now campus cop, Jack, patrols the grounds in his beat up Jeep, helping people whose cars are snowed in or have dead batteries. He rescues freezing, wandering coeds and drunken frat boys. He threatens off-campus drug dealers who prey on rich undergrads. He consistently protects the students even though they poke fun at him and ignore his advice.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jack sits through an English lit class, “I was getting educated in a slow-motion sort of way.” His instructor was “tall and handsome, like someone in a clothing catalog.” After one essay, comparing Hawthorne and Kafka, the prof told Jack he was not unintelligent. The subtle accretion of his distaste for this prof accentuates Jack’s unfolding morality.
At home Jack and his wife, Fanny, a strong-willed chief ER nurse, live lives of despair. Jack spends less time with her than he does walking with and talking to his dog. Recent loss of their infant daughter, Hannah, is still an open wound, an unmentionable topic. They trudge through their stressful work schedules like zombies.
William Franklin, smartass twenty-two year old from a nearby town peddles drugs to college kids. Jack’s efforts to keep Franklin away from campus escalate. After Jack slaps him around, he brings back three thugs to work over Jack, sending him to the hospital with severe injuries. Jack struggles to control his violence and rues the times he punishes a bad guy.
To prove things can always get worse, the campus becomes flooded with posters of missing fourteen-year-old Janice Tanner from a nearby town. Jack becomes obsessed. Prodded by two faculty members—student counselor, Archie Halpern, Jack’s friend and confidant, who counsels Jack on his marriage during breakfasts at the Blue Bird cafe, and big, noisy physics professor Randy Strodemaster, neighbor of the Tanners—Jack agrees to help search for Janice.
Enter young professor Rosalie Piri, damsel in distress, who falls for then seduces Jack after he helps extract her car from a snowbank. Tension builds between these two for the remainder of book, with ambiguous ending about their futures—unless you reread the first few pages. Steamy scenes of cat and mouse leave Jack torn between his desires to make love to Piri or heal his marriage. When Jack is in the hospital recovering from a beating, Fanny nurses his wounds and holds the glass for him to drink while she chastises him for causing the goons to attack him. It’s the closest they come to a loving relationship. Then Piri shows up to see Jack. Fanny intuits the situation. Piri ignores her. When Fanny leaves, we know her relationship with Jack is back on its downward spiral.
Busch’s campus smacks of reality. He graduated from one private liberal arts college, Muhlenberg, and taught forty years at Colgate. His biases toward snobbish faculty and snotty students, expressed from the campus cop viewpoint, are no doubt deeply rooted.
The weather, bitter cold and dreary, is another character. Ubiquitous snow creates tension. Packed on roads to make them treacherous, deep in fields to capture careless skiers and walkers, plowed up against cars to wedge them in, and blanketing houses to overcome furnaces.
The aging, faithful, never-named, ninety pound chocolate lab is also a character. Jack schedule is restricted by feeding and walking him.
Busch is a master of detail. I recalled his story “Widow Water” in which the protagonist repairs a sump pump, explaining how it works to the homeowner and his young son. Starting on page 84 in Girls, Busch describes the equipment, material, and technique used to rebuild the baby’s room into an office, careful to select tools that make little noise while wife sleeps. He imagines how wife would use office and how occasional guests would visit. When Fanny wakes and finds out what he’s doing, she says she’d never use that room. So Jack rips apart his work.
“It was easy. I stuck the blade of my pry bar into the corner seam near the ceiling and I struck it, hard, with the palm of my left hand. The bar slid in through the thick, even paste of compound. I angled it toward a screw, and I pulled toward me with both hands. A lot of wallboard and a lot of compound and a snake of wet, heavy tape came away… I could have located the sheetrock screws and put the drill in reverse and taken them out. But I didn’t want to take care. I wanted to break things. … I couldn’t any longer find satisfaction in a fight with her. We were both too beat up for this. I started to say it, but found when I looked up that she had left the room. That was how our fights had always gone. Fanny walking off and I following. We had done it in cities on the West Coast and in the Middle West, and even in Manhattan…”
A sidetrack episode involves the library. A student wrote a poem in a library book, threatening the American vice-president who was scheduled to visit. Privacy rules prohibited the librarian to divulge the student’s name to the FBI. This scene does little to advance the story. But the second meeting, attended by secret service men, FBI, and local cops, provides the setting for a compelling flashback, seamlessly interspersed with the present.
“We sat in a long narrow room with windows that faced the hillside…I felt like I’d been here before or someplace similar….The secret service men came in, and fluorescent light flared at the door, then darkness rolled over us….It was the light…I had been in light so much like this before that my nerves and brain and spine were thinking for me. My skin, which had been underneath this light before, was remembering it…”
The antecedent was a hospital delivery room where Fanny,
“…at thirty-nine, a feisty scrub nurse, pregnant for it felt like, a year and a half, swollen and damp all over and hating her body but loving its one pregnancy, said by doctors to be impossible…”
“We were home with our sick, unhappy child. Our baby had to return to the hospital… because she was jaundiced. But then we brought her home again…Her eyes were never merry. That’s what I expected, merry eyes like Fanny’s when she laughed or when we made love…Our baby’s eyes were either sad or steady, like she looked me over and sized me up. She studied us. She was judging the odds, I thought later on.”
The back and forth between past and present continues for six pages, culminating in the scene where Hannah dies, the event that forever alienates Jack and Fanny and hangs like a dark cloud over their lives.
In his job, Jack carries an oversized flashlight in lieu of a gun or nightstick. As the story approaches denouement, when Jack knows who abducted Janice, he digs out a war-time souvenir. First, he tells us —speaking to his dog—in great detail how he cleans the gun, then how he came to possess the gun. He took it from a kid in the army who had freaked out and drove a knife through the hand of a fifteen-year-old prostitute. Her pimp
“…laid out the soldier with a wooden hammer used for tenderizing meat then sent word for me. I got the whore cared for, I arrested the boy, I impounded the knife, and when I found the gun on him I said nothing and kept it… because I was enough of a cop to like the idea of an anonymous weapon…”
Humor sneaks into many a scene, relieving tension, developing Jack’s character, contrasting him with faculty, students, and the drug dealer. Jack is often self-deprecating about his limited vocabulary and lack of French. But he wise-cracks his way through difficult situations and displays his street-smarts when confronted with obnoxious students or haughty faculty. Case in point, when a diminutive Korean student taunts the FBI, Jack asks the kid’s name. Then rather than jot the name in a notebook, Jack sticks out his hand, “Hi Chang, I’m Jack.” Later, my favorite line: while Rosalie is cooking Jack’s breakfast, he slides his hand inside her shorts. She says, “Do you want pubic hair or anything with your scrambled eggs?”
Jack loves his wife. Yet he succumbs to Rosalie’s flirtations and denies any involvement when Fanny suspects the romance immediately upon meeting Rosalie who visits Jack in the hospital.
The underlying cause of Hannah’s death is pivotal. Jack and Fanny have different recollections. When they finally confront the issue, the resolution is ambiguous.
As a mystery, the plot thickens when Jack inspects Janice Tanner’s room the second time, finding sexy underwear hidden in her dresser drawer. There is an out-of-place book in her bookshelf which only the astute reader would notice. Even Jack misses it the first visit.
We learn about Jack’s wartime experiences in dribs and drabs. He shares nothing with his English prof, a flawed individual, whom Jack has good reason to loathe. Instead he contrives a story that he spent his time policing Army railroad cars in Baltimore. Jack adds,
“I killed a couple of bums on the rod with my bare hands, though.” I could see how disappointed he was. He’d been banking on my being a murderer. ..I figured I should come to work wearing my fatigue jacket and a red bandana tied around my head. Say “man” to him a couple of times, hang a fist in the air for grief and solidarity and look worn out, exhausted from experiences he was fairly certain he envied my having. His dungarees were ironed, I noticed.”
Later Jack reluctantly reveals parts of his life to Rosalie. We learn more about Jack’s MP experience when he argues his investigative credentials to Sgt. Byrd, the local cop handling the Tanner case, so he can share Byrd’s intel.
Jack works out some frustrations in knee-deep snow, slogging or cross-country skiing with dog in tow until he’s either exhausted or lost.
In another riveting scene, Jack visits the Tanners, afraid he’s unable to help them find their daughter, but can’t say no. Mrs. Tanner senses Jack’s demons on P. 62.
“You’re very decent to help. It makes you sad, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a sad business,” I said.
“I think you’re dealing with more than that,” she said. Her voice had a tendency to lift, a lightness that I associated with her limbs. She was cooked from the inside out by the radiation or the chemicals, and now she had to carry this. Three cheers for God’s design, I thought.
What separates a good novel from a masterful one? The story must catch and keep the reader’s attention. The protagonist must be interesting, multi-dimensional, and strategically developed. The language must be noteworthy yet yield to the plot. Tension must drive us forward. Busch brings all of these features to his work, especially character development. No matter how much we learn about Jack, there is always more.
You can pick any page in Girls and read for five minutes. Chances are you’ll pause to savor a phrase, a sentence, the dialog. I would have loved to sit in one of Busch’s classes as he asked students to comment on a reading or told them how he would rewrite a passage or why the prose of his favorite authors worked. How much fun it would be to see his drafts of Girls and how he improved them.
On second thought, I prefer to savor the end product, time and again.