Frederick Busch’s 1990 novel Harry and Catherine is a love story about fear.
Harry Miller and Catherine Hollander had been together in Vermont when young — Harry, a New York City reporter, flying up for visits, a male presence in the house for her two little boys, Randy and Bobby, after their father Dell had walked out and married someone else; Catherine, raising the boys alone and getting gallery work. This was twelve years ago.
Harry and Catherine had been together then, thoroughly enjoying the sex and the emotional connection they shared at some deep place, until he left because of “her insistence on solitude, on not being nibbled at by men while her boys demanded her.”
Then, three years after that, a postcard with nothing on it but Catherine’s new address in Upstate New York. Harry came for a visit, and they rekindled their romance. But, again, after a week, Harry knew he had to leave.
Her life was blooming again, like her Christmas cactus, bright in the middle of winter, a surprise of sorts, a somehow unshocking surprise. Her clock was eccentric. Her time was hers, and her boys’, and she somehow wasn’t shareable. He remembered thanking her when he left, and meaning it; he remembered that she’d known his meaning, and had smiled.
Now, in the summer of the year when Harry and Catherine are both 41, Harry drops in unannounced to the house — to find that Bobby is a tall, attractive, athletic 14-year-old and Randy, four years older, about to head off to Columbia University and Catherine has a regular lover who often stays at the house, Carter Kreuss, a guy who builds parking lots.
Harry is a less-than-satisfied speechwriter and aide in Washington to a prominent Democratic Senator from New York with ideas of running for President. He stays for dinner, and, when Catherine and Carter go out on her property to fish in her pond, he cleans up the kitchen and leaves again.
And, in October, three months later, he’s back.
“To be careful with”
How can you love a woman who scares you?
How, on the other hand, can you love one who can’t?
This is what Harry is thinking when he arrives in the driveway for that summer visit.
After he goes to the door and is greeted and meets Carter and hands over a bottle of wine, Harry looks at Catherine:
Harry was looking at her straight long nose, the hazel eyes that sometimes seemed nearly green, or flecked with green. He looked at her large hands, her waist grown maybe thicker, he thought, and the long neck she raised, when she was angry, until she was an angry pale bird, a hunting creature, a woman to be careful with.
This is on page 22 of the 290-page novel. Busch, a writer of delicately nuanced novels in which little in the nature of plot takes place but much in the subterranean tremors of complex emotions, is already making it clear this is a book about fear.
Harry loves the woman who scares him. A woman who, when she is angry, is “an angry pale bird.” A woman “to be careful with.”
A few pages later, Catherine is thinking about Harry and realizes:
He was the most hesitant brave man she had known.
Because he’s scared of you.
“What I want from this”
Everyone’s hesitant in Harry and Catherine. Every conversation skirts direct statements, words that could lock in something, someone. Every touch comes gingerly. Every thought uncertain.
Harry reaches for Catherine, but then Carter’s car drives up to the house.
“Carter’s here,” she said. “He had a meeting. It’s all right.”
What your hands, like a scared boy’s, did on my breasts, you idiot. What your fear of me means. What I want from this, whatever that is. “I couldn’t tell you,” she said.
Carter, too, is fearful — about everything. Especially about Catherine.
In October, he and she are meeting at a lake at noon to talk about what is happening, now that Harry is back and Carter has taken his stuff out of Catherine’s house and Harry is sharing her bed again.
It isn’t fair, Carter says, that Harry has come from so far away — “from so far back.” Won’t anyone give a thought to the guy who’s already there?
“All his family and friends, no doubt. But you’re not my husband. I’m not your wife.”
“You’ve been very gracious about that.”
“Bullshit. I’ve been scared I’d scare you off.”
The bones of former slaves
This is the plot of the novel — Harry and Catherine dancing toward and away from each other, and Carter trying to find out how to get back on the floor.
There is a subplot: Harry is in Upstate New York to look into attempts by some local residents to block the construction of a shopping mall parking lot — by Carter — because it would cover over the unmarked burial place of the bodies of more than 50 blacks who died in 1864 of “plague,” possibly influenza.
These are blacks who escaped slavery and arrived in the area on the Underground Railroad. Now, more than a century later, some liberal-leaning whites — the area has virtually no African Americans — want to honor the bones of those who fled to freedom but found death by disease.
To do so, they are willing to block the parking lot which will cause financial headaches to those behind the new shopping mall but even worse money troubles for Carter.
So, a running question is whether the work Harry is doing will drive Carter into or near bankruptcy — and whether his actions are tied up in his competition with Carter for Catherine’s attention.
At one point, Harry is at the sink washing dinner dishes and trying to gain inner control, to talk himself into inner control:
What you must learn to control, and what you’d thought you’d renounced, was the wish to control. Because, you did think, with sickness in your stomach, of Catherine with other men, in every way.
You have not learned the lesson of the revolution. That wanting anything is selfishness, a callowness, unless it’s her idea. Well, listen: it is her life.
Or, as Carter had said, it comes down to “Catherine’s terms.”
Or, as Carter said to her another time:
“You know, it’s like you’re in charge here, and I’m just one of the serfs.”
She sent the postcard
From the first page of Harry and Catherine, Catherine is in charge — but, in a way, she also is afraid.
For twelve years, it has been easier to keep things open-ended rather than make an absolute choice.
After her first time with Harry, she has avoided anything permanent with a man. That’s the arrangement she’s had with Carter — sex and companionship, but not husband and wife.
Yet, she’s the one who sent Harry the postcard.
And she’s the one who, when Harry appeared at her door in their 41st year, let him in and sat him down at the table — and the one who, three months later, let him, for the moment, move in and share her bed while Carter moved out.
She wants Harry. And she doesn’t.
Chopping wood alone
When, gloveless, Catherine chops wood too fast for too long, she turns her hands into flaming blisters, and Harry, with exquisite gentleness, helps her while also commenting:
“And you won’t ask anyone to help because you are on your own. And not weak. And not about to be weakened by asking.”
And he notes that there were other ways she could have gone about the wood-chopping “if you had to go and cut it alone to prove to the world just how solitary you need to be.”
Just how solitary does Catherine need to be? That’s the question that she has to answer. How much is she afraid of linking up with Harry or Carter in something stable?
Harry and Carter are afraid of her. They live by “Catherine’s terms.”
Yet, she also has to live by “Catherine’s terms.”
Patrick T. Reardon