When Dust to Dust author Benjamin Busch was offered an eight-city tour by his publisher, he turned them down. Most authors dread the standard two weeks of flying from city to city, staying at different hotels each night, and wondering if anyone will show up for their readings. However, Busch wasn’t opting out of the tour, he just had something else in mind. He asked if he could take the money and use it for a 48-state driving tour of independent bookstores across the country. He would stay the nights on friend’s and stranger’s couches and “live light.” Ecco’s Director of Publicity, Michael McKenzie, who Busch calls a “magician,” gave him the go ahead.
So far, he’s set to visit almost 200 venues. A couple days ago when I touched base with him, he was in San Diego and said he’d been to 42 venues since March 20th. He was going to spend the night on a small boat in the harbor by the Marine Corps base and “needed to get some Dramamine.” Obviously, this is a man who believes in his book and wants to get it into as many hands as possible. From what I’ve learned, this sort of focus and drive is typical Busch.
At his Powell’s reading he was greeted by some diehard fans of The Wire. It turns out he is also an actor, a photographer and, recently, he added filmmaker to his resume. He played police officer Anthony Colicchio on The Wire, which some people believe was the greatest television program ever made. Busch told the audience, “You should have to watch all five seasons before you can vote in America.”
He talked about the genesis of Dust to Dust, which is a memoir of sorts, and said he wanted it to be both memories from his life, as well as, stories that everyone can relate to. In a break with traditional narrative, the book is not written in chronological order. “Originally, before my editor walked me off a ledge, I was planning on writing the entire book completely out of order because we don’t remember chronologically, we don’t remember linearly, we remember by association. My editor said, ‘You know, that’s great, but there may be a reason nobody’s ever done it. I think you’re going to lose your audience, although it would certainly be a fascinating book.’ Every chapter begins in my childhood and moves through an elemental pathway to some period later in my adulthood. Each has an elemental theme: stone, water, metal, blood, bone, soil, and all these things are pathways in trying to take you into your own memory, your own past. The entire book is designed to take you home. It takes you back to those moments where you can live your childhood and kind of see that childhood and who you are now. That’s what I hoped to do with this book.”
The Arms chapter refers to guns and all manner of weaponry. Ironically, Busch was born to pacifists, but some of his earliest memories are of guns, swords, and war games. He found his way to the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in the summer after his junior year at Vassar, which was a very unusual path for a Vassarite. He eventually served two tours of duty in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Iraq Campaign Medal. During his second tour he lost many friends and was sure he wasn’t going to make it back. “It was brutal.”
When he returned, his father, the renowned writer Frederich Busch, and then his mother, unexpectedly died in quick succession. Not surprisingly, the struggle to come to grips with mortality lies at the heart of Dust to Dust. He talked quietly about the temporary nature of our existence, and his path to coming to terms with death, and that “all artists hope that they create something which endures beyond them. I’m a small moment in the greater cycle of the earth. There is something about me which still hopes that we are something more than ourselves, that we persevere past death after our brief time on earth.”
He was always interested in acting and in between his two tours of duty, he auditioned for Homicide: Life on the Streets which was being filmed in Baltimore, not far from where he was living. “I always wanted to be an actor; I saw Star Wars in ’79 when I was ten. The fact that you could make up an entire world and have someone buy into it was a revelation to me. I like the fact that an actor gets to be an entirely different person — if you go deep.” The passage he read gave us a hint at the full-tilt way he throws himself into his work. It chronicled one day of filming Homicide and was both funny and dark.
As is Busch. His easy smile and gentle manner seem to belie the very serious and focused life that is revealed when you read his book or listen to him talk. He has lived a reflective life, on purpose, and with singular vision. No stranger to danger, even as a child he defied his parents and wandered into rushing waters to build dams and observe nature – constantly testing himself. He’s not blind to risks he has taken. Busch said, “The book is full of bad decisions executed with great enthusiasm, which I continue to do.”
Dust to Dust is not a whimpering account of a difficult life – he had a good childhood and an accomplished adulthood — and there is very little dialogue to reveal what his interaction with those around him entailed. Nor is this a war novel, although the war figures dramatically in his life. There is no sentimental backwash or nostalgia, but there is an emotional tug. It is more a journal of the spaces he has passed through. As I moved through the story, it became sort of a Castaneda-like philosophical rendering of the meaning of life and death. When one grasps its totality, Dust to Dust feels weighted with the gravity one experiences when realizing the truth that lies at the heart of these matters. In fact, I was swept away by this truth telling: about his childhood, about his war experience, about the nature of life as he has lived it.
Oh, and I just found out that Busch will tour until the spring of 2013 and, eventually, fly to Alaska and Hawaii, making it a full 50-state tour. Please be sure to catch a reading at an indie bookstore near you. You won’t be sorry.