A Love Story for Adults

HARRY & CATHERINE: A LOVE STORY by Frederick Busch, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pp., $18.95 TWO men as different as they can be think they love Catherine. One, named Carter, is all action, a contractor in the building trades; the other, named Harry, is a word man, once a poet and journalist, now an aide for a senator from New York. Tough choice for Catherine.

``Harry & Catherine,'' the new novel by Frederick Busch, who is a professor of literature at Colgate University, is about these two men and how they compete for her love. So it's a romance and a quest vividly set in rural upstate New York. As it opens, Carter is living with Catherine and her two growing boys and Drown, the aging Labrador. When Harry shows up, she hasn't seen him in more than a decade. The boys love Harry and it's a homecoming of sorts.

The pretext for his visit is to investigate a complaint made by a constituent of the senator, who complained that the old black burial ground, dating from Civil War days, is about to be blacktopped over to make a parking lot for a new shopping center. Harry's senator thinks he might ride this one all the way to the White House.

Catherine is perplexed. Harry's return shows her she doesn't really love Carter. But she doesn't trust Harry. He left her abruptly 12 long years ago. She's gotten used to her independence. She runs a gallery, does some corporate art consulting, raises her boys, chops her own wood, tends her vegetable garden, and keeps Carter on a short apron string. She's an attractive fortysomething and should be played by Candice Bergen in the movie.

She can be a tease, though. Busch tests the vision of the modern woman with subtle affection. Catherine is a Madame Bovary of the '90s. Both Carter and Harry are afraid to impose on her. She calls the shots. At one point Harry, explaining why his senator sent him up, says, ``It's probably national politics.... If the senator gets involved, it is.'' Then, without missing a beat, he adds, referring to their involvement, ``Catherine, this is politics.''

Busch is a keen observer and notes the analogies between politics and sex, and the interconnections between gardening, chopping wood, cooking, fishing, raising boys, and other of Catherine's activities.

There's a scene (the novel is full of memorable scenes) when Harry and Catherine, wrapped in sweaters and old, cracked, yellow slickers, harvest vegetables by moonlight against the first frost. Catherine works without pause ``on her hands and knees in the almost freezing soil, studying the round dark bell peppers, the long lighter frying peppers, and when she found them, no matter her haste, she turned the vegetables gently while she pulled, as if she were unscrewing them.''

When Catherine discovers that Harry no longer writes poetry, has in effect switched from poetry to political rhetoric (lies), she becomes angry, first at him, then, pages later, at herself. Likewise, it takes a while for her to let Harry help her chop firewood. She bathes her blistered hands in salt water, having read an article about boxing in Sports Illustrated.

Carter, the odd man out, is, in many ways, like Catherine. But his own house is an empty, dusty shell; at home with Catherine, he's fastidious. Rejected by his mother and his wife, Carter is eventually rejected again, though Catherine insists that he's rejecting himself.

Like Catherine and Harry, Carter becomes wiser by the end of the novel, and does something to clear his conscience of the parking lot affair.

Does Harry win Catherine's hand in marriage? Does he want it? One measure of their possible progress is that they begin to talk to each other in a direct manner, at Catherine's insistence. Busch makes us feel how difficult it is for Harry to do this. It's a comic theme but no less moving for that.

Just as Carter and Harry are under Catherine's spell, we are under Busch's spell. Like Catherine, Busch asks us to take a stand, to root one way or the other. The novel is carefully poised, so ethically scrupulous, that we are literally left to figure it for ourselves. This troubling story won't end unless we say so.

At one point early in the novel, Catherine slaps Harry hard, then tells him he's almost too sentimental to live. As Busch describes it, and as Harry comes to feel, that slap was like the one applied to the posterior of a just-born baby, slapping it into breathing. Reading ``Harry & Catherine'' can be like that.

Blended with all sorts of human and natural weather, luscious and salty as a sun-ripened tomato, ``Harry & Catherine'' is a rare treat. Enjoy!

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