The best word I can think of to describe Frederick Busch’s novel Girls is muscular. The novel has certainly received much higher praise than that. Glamour Magazine called it “powerful,” and went on to describe it as an intriguing crime story although the novel’s real strength lay with the main character’s  “growing insight about his marriage, his town, and himself [which] transforms this page-turner about lost children into a tender and eloquent examination of the even greater mystery that is the human heart.”

Jack is a somewhat cantankerous Vietnam veteran who is currently a campus cop at a small college in upstate New York. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency-room nurse. Jack and Fanny are mourning the recent loss of their infant daughter, Hannah. They can barely be in the same room with each other and so they work opposite shifts, drifting past each other in a haze of exhaustion and grief.

Then a local girl goes missing and someone suggests Jack help out with the investigation, ostensibly as a way of working through his own issues.

The characters in Busch’s novel are all messed up.  Jack and Hannah are locked in a grief-fueled stalemate and neither seems to know how to make the first move. As Jack observes:

I thought, as I stayed where I was, that somebody ought to walk around the table and hug this woman hard and just hold on.

Instead, Jack fills his days helping cars up icy hills, rescuing suicidal co-eds, drinking sour coffee with his confessor, Archie, and trying to figure out just what happened to the missing girl.

Girls is a  atmospheric and tragic story and the characters, particularly Jack, are well-drawn and convincing. The novel is often funny, too. In one scene, where Jack runs a drug-dealer off the campus, I laughed out loud.

Busch is a new-to-me writer, but he’s written 20 other novels and he’s impressed me enough to look for more.

The New York Times has a terrific review of the novel here.