Benjamin Busch has found an intriguing method for telling readers about his life. He categorizes his memories according to the elements: water, soil, wood and stone, for instance.
In "Arms," he opens by relating how, as a boy, he was never allowed to own a gun, his parents being war-abhorrers since the days of Vietnam. And that element plays significantly in his life when he joins the Marines and spends two tours as an officer in Iraq.
In "Blood," he remembers a bee sting as a boy, then takes the reader to Iraq where he washes off the blood from a wounded comrade, then through his operation to relieve varicose veins.
And so it goes in "Dust to Dust," Busch tying his memories to the waterways near his childhood home in upstate New York, to the tree he chopped to bridge a stream, to the pennies he crushed under train wheels to make a suit of armor.
But he doesn't limit his memories of blood or soil or bone or ash to specific periods of his life. Instead, he weaves them throughout his work, foregoing the chronological telling of his tale.
Busch, 44, has the pedigree of literary prowess. His father, Frederick, was a noted novelist; his mother, Judith Anne, a librarian. He writes reverently of them and pays tribute to them in a last-page dedication.
One comic memory involved plowing through snow-covered roads with piles of books yet to be donated to the local library. The family station wagon got stuck, and Busch relates how his father, to his mortification, wedged open books under each tire to gain traction.
"The wheels stripped pages and threw them in a plume behind the car My father got out and we looked over the pages blown over the snow. He could tell I was horrified, but he smiled and said, 'Dickens would be proud to know that his book had been sacrificed to save little boys.' "
The "little boys" was in reference to Busch and his brother, and the telling of the incident reveals a possible flaw in Busch's memoir. It is on Page 174 the reader learns he has a brother, but that's all the information Busch presents.
On Page 31 he refers to "my fiancee," but nothing else. On Page 95, he lets the reader know he got married, and on Page 259 he mentions "our daughter." As an author, Busch has the right to choose the memories he deems sufficiently significant to relate. After all, it's his memoir.
But the reader wants to know more about this man. His references to a sibling, a spouse, a child, leave the reader wondering how they impacted his life. Busch writes much about what he did, and he writes well but, except for his parents, he seldom reveals himself in connection to those closest to his life.
Still, "Dust to Dust" provides an interesting literary style for a memoir. Busch's recounting of his Marine training and the M16-A2 he lived with connects neatly to his childhood and the makeshift rifle he created despite his parents' objections to weapons.
"Dust" follows Busch from childhood, to high school football, to college at Vasser ("isn't Vasser a girls' school?" his Marine captain asked) to summer jobs, to wartime in Iraq, to acting (he played Officer Anthony Colicchio on "The Wire"), all meshed together in appropriate elemental categories. It's a worthwhile read, even if somewhat unsatisfying.
Lee Coppola is the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University's Journalism School.
Dust to Dust, a Memoir
By Benjamin Busch
309 pages, $26.99