In 2005, author Colby Buzzell gained national attention with My War: Killing Time in Iraq, his memoir of serving as an infantryman in post-invasion Iraq. Buzzell, an avowed fan of punk rock and metal, wrote with a directness and humor absent from mainstream war reporting, earning him praise from major publications and novelist Kurt Vonnegut.
Buzzell returns this month with Lost in America: A Dead End Journey, an account of his cross-country voyage in a problematic 1965 Mercury Comet. Although the book began as an effort to retrace Jack Kerouac's trip from On the Road, Buzzell flipped the assignment on its head by driving from the West Coast into America's midsection.
Buzzell (above) in a self-portrait from his journey
We talked to Buzzell about his new book, the role of music in his writing, and how he found hope for America's recovery in unexpected places – namely, Detroit.
Music seems to be a pretty big part of your writing.
My first book was like Black Flag, like a punk record. I never went to college and I never studied to be a writer, so it's kind of like these punk musicians who played by ear, where it's so bad it might sound good.
[Lost in America] is more like my post-punk record, like the Faith album by The Cure. It's kind of a dark picture of America with all the stuff going on in the economy and in my life.
You mention music in My War a lot, but in the new book there's no soundtrack for your trip. You're driving around America in a car and you've got nothing, not even a tape deck.
I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I would play music in my head, as weird as that sounds. When I went to Detroit, the first song that came to mind was Slayer, the lyrics to [South of Heaven], “Before you see the light you must die.”
In a lot of American travel writing, California is the destination point. In your book, it's the place to get away from.
It's the opposite of Manifest Destiny, of heading west for opportunity. I'm heading east and I gravitated toward the Rust Belt. During the Industrial Revolution, it was prosperous and now it's in decline and in decay. I went the opposite of Kerouac.
At times the book reminded me of Nickeled and Dimed, but I got the impression you didn't plan that. I got the feeling you ran into so much decline and unemployment that you had to investigate.
Yeah, the book was improvised and I didn't have any instructions other than to retrace Kerouac's footsteps. I didn't really want to retrace his footsteps. I wanted to create my own experience, so I disregarded that and hit the road by myself with no instruction at all.
In Salt Lake City, I saw a news van in front of an employment agency and something clicked in my head: Let's get a job, let's write about that. I do immersion journalism; I throw myself into situations. Instead of talking to somebody about their job search, why not go on a job search and why not work these jobs and see what these people are like and what the experience is like?
A lot of the people you met had pretty depressing stories. Did you feel a sense of doom and gloom out there?
No, actually the opposite, I found nothing but hope. In Detroit, the weak people all evacuated. The people left in Detroit, you get a sense of survival taking place. They're strong. There's this lady who operated a hotel in an environment where every building is boarded up and burnt down, and she's going out and planting flowers, because she cares. That gave me a sense of hope. There's a lot to be learned from the people still living in Detroit. They've got this sense of, “We can make it, things are bad but we'll get through it.”
Before this trip, I remember talking to my friend who's a professor and he said no one goes on the road anymore, everyone gets what they need online. Like, why travel when you can just find out about a place on YouTube?
I got the idea to go [to Detroit] when I was staying in a hotel, drinking a beer and watching the news, and they were talking about how bad it was there. There's what you see on TV, and then there's what you see when you actually set out and experience things for yourself. So I drove to Detroit. I wanted to experience it for myself rather than on TV or the Internet.
Do you still have the Mercury Comet?
It's in storage. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. That car broke down so many times, I just get sick thinking about it.
Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey is available online and in bookstores.