Colby Buzzell was a bored 25 year-old, weary of working dead-end, hand-to-mouth jobs when he decided it would be more exciting and pay better to shoot machine guns in Iraq. After a visit to his local army recruiter, he signed on for a two-year stint, eventually earning a spot as a gunner in the infantry. Buzzell wrote of his “long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” as well as bouts of disillusionment in his first and highly acclaimed memoir My War: Killing Time in Iraq.
Upon his return, Buzzell reacquainted himself with his native country by undertaking a cross country journey beginning at his home in San Francisco and ending in Detroit. Equipped with whiskey, nicotine and a ’65 Mercury Comet, Buzzell prodded the under belly of our ailing nation. Scanning a panorama of forgotten towns filled with lost souls, juke joints and flop houses, he examined the mood and character of his fellow countrymen and wrote of his observations in his new book, Lost in America: A Dead End Journey. I spoke to Buzzell on the phone recently and discussed the places he went, the people he met and the ghost of Jack Kerouac.
The Rumpus: Having traveled this country from west to east, what was your take on the collective mood?
Colby Buzzell: Well, I did some traveling for an article I wrote for Esquire in 2008 and at that time there was a lot of Bush bashing. People couldn’t say enough bad things about him. Now, as I travel, the people I meet are Obama bashing, it seems the guy in charge is taking the hits. The chatter I heard was almost in a panic state as far as jobs and the economy goes but this is no big surprise. What surprised me the most during my travels was seeing this up close and not just hearing about it on the news, it gave me a real sense of the nation’s fear. It wasn’t something you could experience from watching the tube.
Rumpus: Part of the mission statement of your trip was to re-examine Kerouac’s America as he saw and wrote about it in On the Road. How do you think our country has changed since his time?
Buzzell: For one thing there is hardly any hitch hiking on the roads. If you see someone hitching it’s rare, probably their car broke down or they had some other emergency. Drivers are leery of picking up hitch hikers too. I think in Kerouac’s time hitching across country was a sort of communal traveling experience. It was as if everyone was on a quest together, looking for some new beginning. Also, that whole post WW II time had a certain hope to it, the American Dream was a tangible thing, everyone was ready to forget about war and start raising kids. Plus there was a big westward migration out west to some imagined land of promise, people looking for jobs. There was hope. Hope is gone now. Or fading.
I think the country has become more generic since that time. There are certain things you can count on in every town, like Wal-Marts and fast food. I’m not sure why this is, maybe the influence of television or the internet? I traveled as many blue highways as I could but even the out-of way places seemed to blur together, the differences between towns were not very distinct to me.
Buzzell: Yeah, I liked the blog format, it was perfect for me in those circumstances. I could do short pieces that were to the point. Bukowski was an early influence on me and I thought his stories and poems were about the same length as my own writings, I didn’t feel as though I had to write a million words. Hunter S. Thompson was also a big influence, I almost named my blog Fear and Loathing in Iraq but named it My War instead, after a song by Black Flag.
Rumpus: Did it feel strange traveling across the US after being in Iraq?
Buzzell: For this book, no. I didn’t feel what you might call culture shock. It was just good to be back.
Rumpus: Your mother was ill when you undertook this project and you came back after you started to be with her when she died. Did her passing have any effect on your view of America?
Buzzell: My dad had to sell the house after she died, a lot of details had to be taken care of. I felt like I didn’t have a home to go back to, everything had changed suddenly, I felt…
Rumpus: Like an orphan?
Buzzell: Yeah, I felt homeless, like an orphan. The whole experience of my mother’s death made me more sympathetic I think, to the struggling people I met on my travels.
Rumpus: There was a moving scene at the end of your book in which you take flowers to your mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. You wrote that until then, you had never noticed flowers.
Buzzell: My mother loved flowers, she had a garden she was very proud of. I don’t think there was a picture of her that doesn’t have flowers in it. Maybe I became immune to them as a kid but they took on a new meaning when I visited her grave. I was never a flower kind of guy.
Rumpus: You end your journey in Detroit which I thought was fitting. Do you think that town is a sort of poster child for our country, a microcosm for what we were, what we are and what we hope to be?
Buzzell: I think so. Detroit is almost a ghost town now with hardly any middle class. The industries are gone, died or moved overseas. It is the story of America, big prosperity, decline and now trauma. It’s sad because you can still see what this town used to be…sometimes it’s a bit like visiting a ruin. But I loved Detroit, I want to go back. I wanted to move my family there but it’s not the best place to raise kids at the moment. I don’t think it will ever recover.
Rumpus: Any new projects looming?
Buzzell: Yeah, I’m writing about a place that’s a lot like Detroit but completely different.
Rumpus: Wow, that’s like a Zen koan or something. That’s all you’re saying?
Buzzell: That’s it for now. Look for something in January.
Rumpus: Thanks for your service.
Buzzell: You bet.