Benjamin Busch, son of the intellectual novelist Frederick Busch and a mother who gardened with meticulous aesthetic rules, wanted to be a warrior when he grew up. He considered himself in training for that profession from his first conscious thought.
“I knew very early that I was a solitary being,” he begins his new memoir, “Dust to Dust.” “I longed for the elemental. As a child I was drawn into the wilderness, the reckless water of oceans, rivers, and rain, the snow and ice floes, the mountains of rock, stones, and sand, the forests, and the ruins left vacant by human decline, neglect, and tragedy. The places we had given up or could not take were what attracted me. I wandered the woods and brooks with unsubstantiated confidence, and I declared myself daring with unseasoned conviction. It was beyond me to realize that I borrowed much of that invulnerability from the protection of my parents. They worried and were vigilant.”
His parents, who had strong opinions of their own, wouldn’t buy him a rifle or even a toy gun. Little Benjamin put together a collection of sundry weapons and walked the grounds of their de facto “estates,” a few acres of farmland, a brook, a river that needed damming (both Benjamin and the resident beavers had a try at it). There were pits to be scraped out, cellars to be cleaned, rusting detritus of every description to be hauled away.
To defend their various rural homes against imaginary enemies, Benjamin built forts with turrets and once cleared out a cellar so thoroughly that the building above it threatened to collapse, and the cellar had to be filled back in by Benjamin posthaste.
His childhood could be described as a series of valiant failures, and his refusal to tell his stories in any chronological way makes it confusing to keep track of which building project followed which — except for the time in England (where his father was teaching) when Benjamin, about 8, took one look at the place and decided to go home. He figured flying would be easier than sailing and set to work building an airplane covered by tin foil in his alley. When a grown-up told him it would never work, Benjamin asked him why. “Metal fatigue” was the kind but inaccurate answer. From then on, Busch — who divides his book into chapters titled “Stone,” “Ash,” “Blood,” “Wood” and so on — considers metal a little frail, maybe weaker than some of the other elements he deals with here.
So what we come to see, as Benjamin grows up, is an eccentric kid, absent from his home from breakfast to dinner, continually getting himself into trouble — scrapes, cuts, broken bones and the affliction of being a misfit.
His life’s dream is to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he manages to do so, but he gets into Officers Candidate School after his junior year at Vassar and is cruelly nicknamed “Women’s College.” He’s also an art major, marries a Russian scholar and works, between deployments, as an actor on episodes of “The Wire.” Complicated. But then he’s complicated.
The tone here is sonorous and dignified, except for the few times he quotes himself in dialogue, when he uses the F-word or recites “Monty Python” skits, but most of the time dignity prevails, until one humid evening in the Mideast, when Saddam Hussein was still alive and on the loose. Busch, in an executive position, is overseeing a crowded meeting of tribal elders. A little boy comes in with a message. It is a death threat for the author, who draws himself up and remarks sagely, “I cannot be killed by conventional means.” Although he’s suffering from a vicious virus, he manages to keep from throwing up or fainting and finishes the evening basking in the goodwill of the Iraqis. You get the feeling that Busch has lived most of his life waiting for a chance to recite that crazy line, with its overtone of H. Rider Haggard.
We don’t really ever learn why he wanted to be a Marine, and he never makes his disillusion (if any) apparent to the reader. He does allow himself a few sentences on the subject, however. Over the years his risk-taking and constant exposure to the elements have pretty much wrecked his body. He can’t do what he used to do anymore. But it’s more than that. “The purity of service had been corrupted by the moral ambivalence of political language,” he writes. “My days were not condemned by the things I had expected. It was the pointlessness and the faces of people who were left to live in the violence we had brought with us or had drawn to us.”
By the end of this christaline, layered memoir, Busch is not a broken man, but he may have sent himself, ultimately, on a lifelong wild goose chase, and the realization comes hard.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
On Monday, Benjamin Busch will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.