When a mother's love becomes an obsessive search for identity

June 20, 1993|By Diane Scharper

LONG WAY FROM HOME.

Frederick Busch.

Ticknor & Fields.

292 pages. $21.95. Gloria Dodge is a county nurse. "Driving her dust-colored car in a dust-colored world," as she puts it, she rolls from farm to mobile home to semi-lean-to. In houses smelling of mildew and damp earth, among people who smelled more powerfully than their animals, Gloria is on a mission, looking for interesting newspapers.

Later, she checks the "personal" columns. Specifically, she wants those ads asking: ARE YOU MY MOTHER? When she finds them, she sends her name, phone number, and address with the question: AM I YOUR MOTHER?

Gloria is one of the protagonists of "Long Way From Home," Frederick Busch's latest novel and 16th work of fiction.

Mr. Busch experiments with narrative voices, and has received critical acclaim for his ability to get into the heads of his characters. He tells a story -- usually about family relationships -- from several points of view, each view a perfectly pitched examination of the private lives of his protagonists.

Looking closely at people, passion and psychosis, Mr. Busch writes something close to poetry. He had started out as a poet, he explained in an interview. But his poems grew into short stories. The stories have now become novels. "My work is gritty, sexy, tough, and getting tougher," he said. It's also absorbing, fast-paced and a joy to read.

The subject of this book is obsessive love, just as it was in his previous novel, "Closing Arguments." That story looked at obsessive love between a lawyer and his mentally unbalanced client. This book is about obsessive maternal love -- between two women, who may or may not be mother and daughter. Whether they are is partly the point of the story. One of the women, Gloria, thinks she is looking for her child, later her grandchild. But she is actually looking for herself.

The other woman is Sarah Mastracola, the adopted daughter of Will (a journalist) and Lizzie (a high school principal). Sarah thinks she is looking for her birth mother. By story's end, she learns that she is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.

The story flashes back 30 years, as Gloria explains that she had an affair with someone who died in Vietnam. The result was a daughter given up for adoption. For several years, Gloria made an effort to find this daughter. Gradually, Gloria's effort became an obsession for, even a fatal attraction to, her daughter or to the idea of a daughter.

Gloria is the most interesting character. Mr. Busch develops her by allusions to Mother Goose rhymes and to fairy tales, especially the Grimms' "Hansel and Gretel." Gloria seems at first merely overbearing. Soon her desire to control other people becomes ominous.

It extends to Sarah, Lizzie, Will, Stephen (Sarah's 6-year-old son) and Barrett, Sarah's husband. The book begins as Sarah runs away from her family to an isolated log cabin. Here she will find the woman who may be her mother. There's an eerie quality to their relationship, even before they meet: "Her mother, she thought, intoning the word inside so that she heard its syllables the way they used to hear records played too slowly. . . ."

We come to know Sarah through the voices and chants she hears in her head. As Sarah drives to backwoods Pennsylvania, she remembers herself as a schoolgirl crying, "Yahdeeyahdeeyahdee." That, she though, was her drowning-out sound. The other was a mocking voice saying "I ca-an't hear you." Barrett, the most sensual of the characters, is what he smells: "He smelled again the mingled odors of fried food, his sour body, and -- he sniffed as dogs do in the wind . . ."

The boy, Stephen is what he sees. He has large blue eyes like his mother's and like Gloria's. When he sleeps, those eyes see nightmares. During the day, they see "so far inside of himself" that his life becomes dangerous. Just how dangerous becomes clear as the story ends.

Ms. Scharper's collection of poetry, "The Laughing Ladies," will be published in July. She teaches writing at Towson State.

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