Getting to Know Benjamin Busch, One Chapter At a Time

An unprecedented thing happened as I read Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust: in one sitting, I never read more or less than one chapter. First “ARMS,” then “WATER,” then “METAL,” “SOIL,” “BONE,” “WOOD,” “STONE,” “BLOOD,” and “ASH,” then the Epilogue. I would read thirty to thirty-five pages on the leather couch in the living room, go to my room and watch an episode of Deadwood, return to the couch, and repeat. It was the most regimented reading experience of my life, and it was totally self-imposed.

Why did I read Dust to Dust this way? Why did I repeatedly fight the urge to continue onto the next chapter? And why did this discipline feel so rewarding?

One answer: I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I read the first chapter in one sitting, and by coincidence the second, and then felt compelled to keep the trend going as to not upset the cosmic balance that exists in the space between my ears. Before I even started the book, I was delighted to see that the names of the chapters were all elemental, a single word. (The obsessive-compulsive mind has a bottomless appreciation for consistency, no matter how trivial.) The poetry of chapters five through eight—BONE, WOOD, STONE, BLOOD—is music to my ears, but a maddening glitch in the OCD lobe of my brain, because chapter one doesn’t establish the scheme, and chapters six through nine don’t follow it.

Or, as I read Busch’s story his penchant for order proved infectious, his quirks rubbing off on me the way any likable person’s will if you spend enough time with them. As well as a writer and actor, Busch is a military man—a former US Marine—with an appreciation for routine. His father, the novelist Frederick Busch, wrote in his study every morning, and his parents always met and spoke in the kitchen, which the younger Busch recalls fondly. From the time he’s a kid well into adulthood, Busch displays an affinity for structure. Many if not most of the childhood scenes in Dust to Dust involve Busch meticulously building something: bullets (made from melted down crayons), armor (made from coins flattened on train tracks), boats, forts, and walls.

The third explanation for my chapter-by-chapter regimen doubles as the reason I felt so good about it: because the Digital Age is also the Age of Shuffle, the ADD Era, and for once, I felt like I was experiencing a work of art the way the artist had intended. Buying albums—let alone listening to them from start to finish—went extinct with CDs, sadly, and it’s rare that I read an eight-page New Yorker article all the way through. (I do finish them—over time, in chunks.) Even Deadwood, which I love, and which I watch (illegally) online, is repeatedly shrunken down so I don’t have to go fifty-five minutes without checking my email.

But I read Dust to Dust from beginning to end, element by element, wanting to obey Busch’s structure as strictly and consistently as he’d delineated it. Reading this way felt respectful, even ethical—like I was obeying the author’s sacred wishes and doing something good. (A similar feeling visited me when I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, armed with a small Spanish dictionary to look up all the words I didn’t recognize.) It could be that, having seen the careful precision with which Busch constructs everything else, I knew the book’s blueprint had been drawn with purpose. Had Busch organized the memoir chronologically, the reader would have been bludgeoned into boredom with repetitive stories about his fort-riddled childhood early on, into despair by the war stories in the second half. As is, the book manages to move in an orderly fashion within each chapter, but jumps around enough to hold the reader’s internet-withered attention.

Busch’s structure also allows him to write what is as much a meditation on life-and-death or growth-and-decay as a personal memoir. When I read the opening chapter, “ARMS,” I mistakenly assumed that Busch’s reluctance to spill his guts was just because we hadn’t gotten to know each other yet. As we move along, I thought, he’ll open up to me. In reality, “ARMS” sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is contemplative and restrained, more about Busch’s relationship to nature and time than any persons except for his parents. (Of his parents, Busch writes, “All my memories of youth revolved, in some way, around their vigilance.”) Though it can feel almost technical in its descriptions, to call Busch’s voice mechanical isn’t fair because there is real human depth to what he’s saying, and his writing is just as often lyrical, as in the following “METAL” passage: The aluminum ribs would buckle, and the thin skin would crumple as we tumbled, dead in our seats or wishing that we were. There is rarely a survivor from a helicopter crash.

Still, I might have never put down a memoir knowing less about its author. I don’t know how Busch met his wife, how old his daughters are, or what any of them are like. I don’t know who his friends are. I don’t know how he feels about Bush’s decision to invade Iraq—a war in which he fought, in which he lost friends—or his potentially life-changing role as Anthony Colicchio on The Wire. (Busch mentions the revered HBO show twice: the first time to tell a forgettable anecdote about being confused for a real cop on the streets of Baltimore, the second in passing.) I feel more attuned to Kid Busch than Adult Busch, though the evolution from the former into the latter is natural and obvious—inevitable, even.

Kid Busch lived briefly in Edgeware, England, dubbed a “Yank” and tormented by his classmates. When his mother tells him that thirty-five pence isn’t enough for a plane ticket back to the States, Busch—a Man of Action at eight years old—announces that he will build a plane and “fly it over the ocean myself.” He constructs a craft from old fruit boxes and aluminum foil, planning to acquire a broken lawn-mower engine from “Someone in the alley,” at which point he will depart. Eventually, Busch’s father must gently quash his dream: “Besides lunacy, there was impending disappointment that he wished to protect me from.” (This line is a nice example of the dry wit that drops by the book every so often.) The elder Busch invents something called “metal fatigue,” and father and son dismember the plane together.

Two years later, when an old fisherman informs him that trout no longer swim in the river near Busch’s house in Poolville, New York, the ten-year-old Busch, “upset to hear that the river could shift,” resolves “to build a dam below the bridge and restore the river to what it had once been.” He works tirelessly until dinnertime, but his incomplete dam is more of a moral victory than a true success, a stony testament to Busch’s resourcefulness and superhuman work ethic—traits that will serve him well as a Marine and a man, though his aversion to sitting still will eventually take a toll on his knees.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the book occur when Busch–both the Kid and Adult model–interacts with other people. When his family moves from Poolville to Sherburne, Frederick Busch makes his son unload his massive bottle cap collection at the dump, thereby aborting Ben’s mission for over a million caps. Busch writes, “I will never forget the sound of it being poured out onto the concrete floor, never forget staring at its mass glinting in the sun, never forget my father looking from the pile to me with an apologetic sense that by his hand a great endeavor had ended in tragedy.” In a lighter scene, years later, when a drill sergeant asks if Busch’s alma mater, Vassar, is an all-girls’ school, Busch corrects him: “Women’s college, sir!”

But these moments are fleeting. Busch is an only child; he mentions no close friends from his youth. After college he lives alone in a trailer, briefly bonding with a goat tied to a tree. As an adult—although he leads soldiers into battle, and loses at least one friend to an IUD in Iraq—most of the scenes center on Busch building, breaking down, cleaning, fishing, shooting, scouting, or simply observing things (usually their changes over time), alone. If you are one of those people who flips through a book before you start reading, the first thing you will likely notice is that Dust to Dust is almost completely devoid of dialogue. Chapter four, “SOIL,” is completely devoid of it: a letter Busch writes home from Iraq to his mother is the only form of verbal exchange.

If that sounds difficult to get into, that’s because it can be. The last memoir I read prior to Dust to Dust was Mary Karr’s fiery, phenomenal, and very personal Lit, so the transition to Busch’s sober meditation was jarring and at times frustrating, like meeting someone you know is a cool person if they would just talk. Two chapters in, I adjusted my expectations accordingly, but as I inched past the halfway point the lack of human interaction began to erode my patience. Upon reading the first line of chapter six (“WOOD”)—“Trees seem to be random, their arrival in fields and the top of hills unexplainable, their growth mysterious”—I groaned out loud, in part because, due to my firmly established routine, I knew I couldn’t put the book down and come back to it. More than that, I pined for a hominid to materialize and yank Busch out of his own head.

I got my wish to some extent near the end of “WOOD,” where a Vietnam vet tells Busch that he “was all the fuckin’ way in ‘Nam… But you couldn’t even draft my ass to go to a desert”—but more so in the final two chapters, “BLOOD” and “ASH,” which are the book’s finest. In “BLOOD” there is humor (Busch, in his trailer days, wears a cartoonish number of layers and goggles to steer a Bronco full of wasps), danger (a marine is struck by an RPG, a sniper attacks in Iraq), and heartache (Busch brings home a duckling for his daughter, only for it to die overnight—almost a Bizarro version of the famous Louie episode). Contrary to “BONE,” an earlier chapter more about finding and examining remains (and X-rays of Busch’s knee, which he shredded in a high school football game, and which continues to deteriorate over the years), “BLOODforces Busch to acknowledge people and creatures who are, for the most part, still kicking.

“ASH” opens with the same kind of brooding musing that frustrated me at the start of “WOOD”—“Ash is a substance without a real attachment to air or firmament. It is not part of the fundament, or earth. It exists only as aftermath…”—but proves itself the most affecting section, discussing death not as it pertains to trees or streams or the Universe, but Busch and his family. Here I realized that, more than anything, the chapter delineations I’d obeyed so strictly evoke a good, tight album, the kind no one buys anymore: nine tracks (the Epilogue is more like an outro, or a set of liner notes), the strongest ones resting at each end, the weak spots or “filler,” which is too harsh a word for anything in Dust to Dust, dotting the middle. Though he never opens up the way I would have expected before I cracked the book—he describes the death of a loved one, “I held my breath. Across from me, Patricia did the same. And so we were none of us breathing”—by the end one is able to recognize the author’s quiet devastation.

All of which is a long way of saying, maybe I know Benjamin Busch better than I think. He is far too entrenched in reality to let any role, even one on The Wire, define him. Whatever his thoughts on the Iraq war, they are well reasoned, arrived at after countless hours of consideration and firsthand experience. Whoever his friends, I’m sure they hunt, fish, watch football, and laugh together. And it’s easy to imagine Busch, up early on his Michigan farm, fixing the roof, or shoveling snow from the driveway for his wife, or building a treehouse with his daughters, a Man of Action maximizing every second, realizing that Death—“a bastard of an enemy,” as Frederick Busch put it in a letter to his son at college: a letter that concludes Dust to Dust—awaits him, awaits everything.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.