The search for a missing youth jump-starts Busch’s brooding latest, a loose sequel to his 1997 stunner, Girls.
Jack, the itinerant security guard who appears in Girls and (otherwise named) in the earlier short story “Ralph the Duck,” is drawn away from his latest gig at a Carolina resort by a request from Manhattan attorney Merle Davidoff: to find her vagrant nephew Tyler Pearl, an inveterate gambler last seen in an upstate New York area Jack knows all too well. Returning to the hamlet of Vienna, where, years before, he and local police had failed to locate the body of a murdered girl, Jack surrenders again to his obsessive fixation with “kids gone missing and kids gone dead”—an obsession magnified by the deaths of his own wife and daughter, and the burden of guilt that surrounds those losses. Reconnecting with black state trooper Elway Bird, who’s now dying of leukemia, and Elway’s wife Sarah (with whom Jack has a more intimate history), he gradually uncovers evidence of “dope farming” and learns all he needs to know and more about transplanted Vermonter Clarence Smith and seductive rich-girl freelance journalist Georgia Bromell, as the story moves toward a violent climax, another bitter loss and a (painfully unconvincing) flurry of reconciliations and promises. North, which resembles a Ross McDonald mystery more closely than anything else Busch has written, is well worth reading: it’s filled with potent atmospheric effects, wrenching dialogue, and a sure sense of its middle-aged protagonist’s weary apprehension of the facts of his limits and his mortality. But it’s weakened by Jack’s genre-mannered narrator’s voice, and a thudding overemphasis on the theme from which Busch can’t seem to free himself: that life is brutal and dangerous, and we cannot protect our loved ones from its ravages. We’ve heard it all before, in earlier, better books.
This writer’s failures are indeed more interesting than many of his contemporaries’ successes. Still, North is a disappointment.