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BOOK REVIEW : Unfolding Tale of Evil and Abuse : CLOSING ARGUMENTS <i> by Frederick Busch</i> ; Ticknor & Fields $19.95., 288 pages.

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Frederick Busch hangs us by the heels to tell a story so taut and absorbing that we forget we are upside down, except that blood slowly fills our heads and disorients us. Even to write about his new novel, “Closing Arguments,” brings on a dizzy spell.

On the face of it, the story is mordant and tough--something on the order of a roman noir .

Mark, the narrator, is a lawyer in Upstate New York. He is assigned to defend Estella, a young woman who kills her lover in the course of kinky sex that had included mauling, tying-up and near-strangulation. Lawyer and client are mutually attracted with a stagy suddenness that contributes to the deliberately high-wrought atmosphere. After putting up Estella’s bail, and during the preparation of her defense and a brief trial, Mark is drawn into a series of increasingly violent sexual encounters.

As he narrates them, he cuts back, page for page, to his memories as a Marine pilot in Vietnam: His brutal pleasure in strafing Vietnamese positions and seeing the enemy “explode like popcorn,” being shot down and captured, prolonged brain-washing by an interrogator he calls “the Phantom” and escape after killing a guard.

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The two narrative strands are entwined in two others, with the choppy effect of suppressed hysteria. There is Mark’s troubled relationship with his wife and his teen-age son. And there are his memories of being brutally abused by his parents. The memories oddly parallel those in Estella’s own dark background.

Recounted with a control so perfect that it suggests incipient breakdown, and in segments whose brevity heightens their percussive effect, the interplay of themes is almost too much for us to take in; yet we do. But there is that recurring upside-down sensation, fed by an occasional hint. They are tiny hints, at first unnoticeable, but they are subliminally disorienting. Mark is lying to us; we are not sure how. Only at the end does the whole dark account collapse upon itself.

“Let’s say I’m telling you the story of the Upstate lawyer, the post-traumatic combat stress, the splendid wife, their solitudes and infidelities, their children, his client with her awkward affinities, the sense of impending recognition by which he is haunted.”

That is the first sentence; by the time we read the last, we realize we were given the key right there. What we couldn’t see--what, thanks to the persuasive voice of the narrator, we were absolutely distracted from seeing--was the keyhole. And it would be unfair for this review to disclose it; to say where the monumental deception lies.

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In the most basic terms, though, something is clear. Evil underlies the story, and it is the evil produced by abuse. Mark and Estella have lived ostensibly successful lives--she is a dedicated social worker--built over the phantasmagoric wreckage of childhood torment. The ghost they have in common propels them toward each other.

“You were looking for me,” she tells him. This after he had interviewed her in jail, jeopardized his respectable standing by the virtually unheard-of step of putting up her bail, taken her to the motel room where her lover died--first she claims to have strangled him; later she says he died of a heart attack during “rough sex"--and, virtually without preamble, has sex with her.

Busch, one of our most powerful and prolific authors--in his output and his restless range of manner and themes, he may remind us in some fashion of Joyce Carol Oates--has achieved some remarkable things in this book.

He is a master, for instance, of pain in marriage; that leaching compounded of yearning and rebuff. The scenes between Mark and Schelle, his wife, are harsh and touching at the same time. His lifelong practice of deception cuts him off from her; yet he aches with loneliness. Sex has long since ended; when, in a moment of warmth, she timidly suggests going to bed, a two-word phrase cuts like a knife: “Schelle, listen. . . . “

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Estella’s defense--that childhood abuse compels her to erupt when offered even the kind of agreed-upon violence of sadomasochistic sex--wins out. But the reader is left puzzled. How could the manner of her lover’s death--by strangulation or heart attack--be in question? Surely, there would be conclusive medical testimony. And finally, when the nature of Mark’s deception is revealed, a few bothersome loose ends remain.

But Busch, sustaining the mystery of Mark until the end, compels us from page to taut page along the edge of the dark abyss that early abuse can open in a life. Mark is monstrous, pitiable, human; he falls like a brother.

NEXT: Judith Freeman reviews “The Dark Sister” by Rebecca Goldstein (Viking).


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