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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Guest Book Review: DUST TO DUST

Author will be at Dog Ears Books this coming Friday
[Today's guest blogger, Tim Bazzett, hails from Reed City, Michigan, boyhood home of Michigan writer Jim Harrison and current home of Benjamin Busch.]

Benjamin Busch's new book, Dust to Dust: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2012) is at once puzzling and moving. Puzzling because I wondered how a Vassar graduate who had majored in studio art could seem so easily conversant about things like soil and stone, metal and water, ash and bone -- things one would normally associate with the study of earth sciences, geology, or archaeology. And moving because, by using these elements as primary symbols and vehicles for telling his life story, he touches on the pain of extended family separations, injuries and wounds, loss of comrades-in-arms and loved ones, and the grief and hard-won wisdom that follow.

Some readers may have trouble with the spiraling, circular narrative, which jumps from the author’s solitary childhood enterprises and adventures to his war-time service as a Marine officer in Iraq, then back to childhood in upstate New York and Maine. He tells of his college years, interspersed with more tales of military training in Virginia, North Carolina, and California, deployments to Ukraine and Korea, and trips as a child and young man to England. What emerges is the portrait of a boy and a man with a boundless curiosity about the world and how he fits into it. His whole life Busch has struggled against rules and expectations, endlessly experimenting and daring to be different. The son of a novelist father (Frederick Busch) and librarian mother, he grew up with a healthy respect for books but as a boy was drawn more to exploring the forests, fields, and streams surrounding his rural family home, as well as to building walls, forts, and bridges, all in an extraordinarily unstructured and free childhood that would be foreign to most of today's children. Busch's description of his youthful explorations and wanderings made me think of Cooper, and the child Ben Busch as a kind of half-size Natty Bumppo.
The forest spread undisturbed and beyond measure, and I felt like I had found a place before maps. I drew my own map of the forest, without a compass, and gave names to the terrain. It was a kind of storytelling.
Busch continues describing this forest, this "place before maps," until he reaches a point he proclaimed "the center of the forest," and comments, "Reading Robinson Crusoe here would be different from reading it in a room." And there, of course, is the inescapable influence of his more cautious, bookish parents.

Although both of Ben's grandfathers had served in WWII, his parents were shocked when Ben joined the Marines out of Vassar. He was, in fact, the very first Marine officer candidate to come from Vassar, which his boot camp commander called a "girls' school." Busch had the ill-advised temerity to correct the officer, saying, as his many female classmates had taught him, that it was a "women's college, sir." In fact, Vassar has been co-educational since 1969.

There is no hint of braggadocio or macho chest-thumping to be found anywhere in Busch's accounts of his service in Iraq. He tells instead, in tellingly terse terms, of being ambushed, of rushing his wounded men to aid stations, of holding the hand of a too-young man, bleeding out and in shock, asking, "What is happening to me?" Busch doesn't have an answer. He goes outside into the dark and washes the man's blood from his hand. In another incident he tells of how he and a captain friend break the tension of a dangerous patrol by trading remembered absurd dialogue from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” about being "in great peril." Moments later the captain was dead from an IED explosion. Feeling powerless, in a letter home, Busch reviews the Rules of Engagement -
Positive identification of a threat is required before you can fire. Reasonable certainty.... You are not sure, in the shimmering imagination of night vision equipment, if you see something moving. It can't be positively identified. You are holding your fire. You are holding your position....
He reflects on how the "purity of service had been corrupted by the moral ambiguity of political language." Like most servicemen deployed to Iraq, Busch suffered concussions from bomb blasts, a daily hazard a medical surgeon shrugs off as "typical." Besides telling of his own time in Iraq, Busch also touches on the agony of waiting suffered by his parents during his two tours there. His father, in a piece he wrote for Harper’s, commented on how he and his wife, both in their mid-sixties, ticked off each successive day of his time there, adding, "Perhaps we feel that by slicing another day off our lives, as we wish it away to bring him home, we are spending our lives to buy his."

This is a serious memoir, no mistake. But there is humor here, too, as in Busch's description of his first brush with acting at the age of seven, when he dies dramatically by falling noisily backward off a school stage, a feat which caused a collective gasp from cast and audience alike. Years later, out of the Corps, his first two acting jobs are, ironically, as a corpse on a morgue table, and a murder victim lying in a pool of blood on a freezing Baltimore street. His roles have gotten better since then.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I can still remember the priest's words every Ash Wednesday when he smudged the ashes onto my childish forehead, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." Benjamin Busch, in one of his returns to his childhood endeavors, tells of a stone fort he built as a boy and the pleasure he took in simply sitting inside it, saying he wanted to live in it. But he could "also imagine being buried in it. It was my work, this crypt built of stone, intended for perpetuity like any grave. All anyone would need to do would be to lay me inside and fill it in." These thoughts may seem foreign and dismal to some, but not to Busch, who also says: "There is something to be said about being dust. It is where we're all headed."

Dust to Dust: A Memoir is a work of art unto itself, a memoir unique, troubling and magical. I will not soon forget it.


Tim Bazzett, author of the acclaimed REED CITY BOY trilogy, lives in Reed City. His most recent memoir is BOOKLOVER.

For an interview with Ben Busch in the Free Press, see here.


Kathy said...

Tim, thank you for your guest blog here. I like that you described it as unique and troubling AND magical. I am interested to discover more.

Dawn said...

Sounds like an interesting read about a man that has had, in effect, many different lifetimes.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy and Dawn, I encourage you both to follow the link to the interview in the Free Press, which will give you some first-person perspective from the author. And then, of course, read his book! I will be starting Chapter 5 tonight.

Gerry said...

I am looking forward to Friday. So Tim, what is it about Reed City anyway? They put something in the water that compels people to become writers?

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I'd hoped Tim would get in here and leave a comment replying to your question. I don't have the answer myself.

Dawn said...

Excellent interview. I think I"m going to want to buy the book!

P. J. Grath said...


The New York Journal of Books
March 20, 2012

“There has never been another book like Dust to Dust. No other book carries the full freight of combat including two tours of duty in Iraq: one in which the young soldier feels invincible, the second in which he feels a fearful certainty that he will die. These experiences are spotlighted so that we can see not only the whites of their eyes, but the spit, sweat, and blood—and places the war within the context of the whole of life, as if combat were completely akin to a football injury, or the first day spent on a movie set, or a night filled with coyote howls. The soldier here is another Cincinnatus, his nation’s need for him finished, returning to his plow… It is impossible to read any part of this work and not be moved… No other writer has moved me as much as Benjamin Busch has in writing about war. No other writer has created such a moment of grace in the death of a goat. Or made the gift of a sheep’s skull into an enduring mystery…. In a world with so damned many books in it, Dust to Dust is one worth noting. Worth reading and rereading. Worth keeping and giving away. Out of the piles of books on the shelves, in the stores, online, by the bed, this is one to be savored. Don’t fail to read it.”