Family Ties in Both a Marine’s Memoir & Comedy-of-Art-Manners Novel

The mailbag has been kind to The SunBreak recently, bringing Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust and Kevin Wilson’s first novel The Family Fang. (Busch reads in Seattle tonight at Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books, 7 p.m.)

Dust to Dust is startlingly good.

Though it’s bound up in Busch’s experiences in wartime Iraq, as an officer in the Marines, it’s the opposite of what you might expect. Let’s begin with the chapter titles: “Arms, Water, Metal, Soil, Bone Wood, Stone, Blood, Ash.” That’s not rhetorical stylishness; Busch has a grim fascination for what he perceives as elemental that might remind you of the poet Ted Hughes. Or, in another context, you might think of Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: another book by an essentially solitary man who finds himself in praxis.

Where Jonathan Shay finds in Homer the deracinated veteran, victim of PTSD, struggling to find his way home, Busch excavates his childhood to demonstrate that he knows who he is, that who he is led him to war, to service of his country. The memoir begins with Busch describing how, as a boy, his parents forbade him guns, yet: “I spent much of my childhood constructing forts in our backyard and gathering local boys for epic battles.”

Busch is not an easy man to get your arms around, figuratively. Marine officer, yes, but also student of studio art at Vassar. Guest commentator on All Things Considered, and also Officer Anthony Colicchio, coiner of “Hamsterdam,” on The Wire. As an actor in Generation Kill, he got to reenact invading Iraq. As a stylist, he can write an austere action-poetry:

“We almost got a wooden cross out of that shit,” said one pilot.

Their faces were shiny with sweat. I nodded to the crew chief and ran out the lowered gate in back with my pack. They lifted again, blowing sand, dust, and sharp segments of dry grass in a cloud over us, turned, and fell back down the valley, the pilots driving their empty metal shell through the invisible wind.

He’s observant, noticing things that matter, that take you there. “Staring up a trees in a forest is like staring into a hole. All of the lines decrease toward a center that does not exist. It is an anomaly in the rules of perspective,” he writes. “But seen looking up, they formed a cone, and I felt like falling, detached from the ground.”

The artistic project is a response, of course. Plenty of boys and girls play at fighting who never go off to discover what an IED can do. You can feel Busch using the waters, trees, and sediments of his pre-war youth as a poultice on wounds from the desert. But the heart of darkness arrives after that. Busch is contemplating his own decrepitude (war is tough on joints), when his parents’ health intrudes.

He quotes Paradise Lost: “In either hand the hast’ning Angel caught / Our lingering parents….” Parents are the original ground from which we spring, and Busch begins to grasp his novelist father’s preoccupation: “He created families that were under assault and then defended them with language.” There is no defense for mortality, of course. Reading Dust to Dust is a bit like the Buddhist instruction to meditate on a skull until it no longer frightens you.

If there’s an instructive skull in The Family Fang, the first novel from Kevin Wilson, it’s grinning. Now in paperback, the “best book of the year” is available for all those who–like me–missed it the hardback time around. Pick it up before Wilson arrives for his reading at the University Bookstore on May 18 (7 p.m.).

“Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief,” is how the book opens, a little Lemony-Snickety. The children are Annie and Buster, Child A and Child B in their performance-artist parents’ gallery descriptions. We meet Annie and Buster in early adulthood, when they are coming to realize just what their childhood has done to them.

They’re aspirational wrecks, no question. Annie is a movie star with a volatile on- and off-set social life, possibly reminding you of Angelina Jolie. Buster is a writer, penniless, yes, but still on assignment for Potent (which might sound like Maxim) to profile a group of unemployed young vets who have created a new line of potato-launching artillery. He is not a natural:

“So,” Buster began, unsure of the correct way to phrase his question, “does all of this, shooting off potato guns, ever remind you of your time over in Iraq?” As soon as he finished his question, everyone around him seemed, momentarily, incredibly sober. “Are you asking if we have flashbacks or something?” asked David.

The first act plays out for some time, in lots of (in fact) flashbacks and cutaways, as Wilson introduces both the contemporary Annie and Buster, and their childhood selves, Svengali’d into ridiculously set-up art happenings from Caleb and Camille Fang, often taking place in a mall and dependent upon disturbing a bovine complacency. If it seems that Caleb and Camille’s art is a little one-note in its public humiliations, it’s because Wilson wants to employ this as an allegory for childhood, specifically those lived out in the public shadow of attention-seeking parents.

But finally, Buster and Annie return home, and the novel’s second act–growing up–can begin:

For Annie it was more shocking to see her parents for the first time in years than it had been to see Buster’s swollen face. Her parents seemed like miniature, crooked versions of themselves. Their hair had gone completely gray.

It’s all agreeable enough, if not entirely surprising, or as amusing as you might expect a “best book of the year” to be. That’s not Wilson’s fault. It might have benefited from some tightening up, so that his satiric impulse would be more evident. As the lives of everyone are more and more lived on Facebook and YouTube, with their attendant humiliations, you can almost dispense with the question of whether art is worth children, or children, art. The kind of scrutiny that Annie and Buster wilted under is all around, and in reach of regular people, too.