Wounds of war
'Jarhead' author takes a new direction in debut novel
With Jarhead, the unflinching account of his six-month tour of duty as a Marine scout/sniper during the first Gulf War, Anthony Swofford delivered furious broadsides at the inanity and insanity of modern warfare. From the moment his boots hit sand, he cursed his decision to follow his "family clan of manhood" into combat. When, after months of training to kill, the war ended practically before it began, Swofford returned home feeling shortchanged and sucker-punched.
Having purged himself of his battlefield bitterness by writing Jarhead at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Swofford returns with Exit A, a surprisingly fresh and playful fiction debut. Part coming-of-age story, part epic quest, Exit A is the flipside of Jarhead, told by those other casualties of war, the wives and children of America's armed forces.
Part One is set in 1989 on a U.S. air base in Yokota, Japan, where high school football star Severin Boxx is fighting his attraction to Virginia Sachiko Kindwall, a half-Japanese teen siren whose father is both his coach and the base commander. Severin is torn between his loyalty to his coach and his curiosity about Virginia's punk-rock life in Tokyo, which she accesses via the Exit A subway stop.
Her rebelliousness against her domineering father leads Virginia into a secret life of petty street crimes, a life into which she hopes to lure Severin. When she unwittingly becomes involved in an international kidnapping plot, Severin calls the Japanese police to rescue her. Instead, they throw her in prison, prompting Severin's parents, who fear the general's reprisal, to dispatch their son to an uncle in San Francisco.
In Part Two, 13 years later, Virginia is a social outcast living near the old Yokota base with an illegitimate daughter by a prison guard, and Severin, now married to academic wiz Aida, is squandering his doctorate by mowing lawns at Aida's university. When the dying Gen. Kindwall contacts Severin from Vietnam for one last favor, it sets in motion a quest that ultimately reunites Severin and Virginia.
Swofford's sexy, angst-ridden tale demonstrates an engaging new fiction voice trying out several themes at once. The fact that the whole of Exit A manages to congeal despite the disparity of its parts is testimony that Swofford's truly got the stuff.
Did he feel pressure to further pursue the grim realities of soldiering, perhaps with a Jarhead II?
"Actually, I felt the need to ignore Jarhead," Swofford admits. "Jarhead was of no interest to me, really. There was a deliberate turn in a different direction in how the story is told, a female point of view and a view from the other side of war, from those left behind."
Swofford knows that landscape well. From age 4-8, he and his family lived on a base in Tokyo. "The aftermath of the [Vietnam] war for my father definitely colored my childhood, colored my home life," he says. "I think growing up on base truly qualifies as a subculture, one that is not regularly depicted or understood."
Exit A examines the cost of the choices we make, be it Gen. Kindwall's fanatical devotion to discipline, his daughter's rebelliousness or Severin's indecisiveness. As in thermodynamics, every action in Exit A has an equal and opposite reaction.
"It was an assessment of my late teen years in a way," Swofford says. "I wanted to capture these fascinating years, 17 and 18, where there is a lot of anxiety about what one is going to do in the world and what one's place is. And there is the anxiety and excitement of leaving home and the influence of your parents."
Although Part One leads the reader to expect to see the young lovers reunite, these two characters obviously didn't get the memo. In fact, even when they do meet, we're never quite sure of their own motives, much less each other's. Does Severin have lingering feelings for Virginia, or is he merely using Gen. Kindwall's summons as a convenient excuse to pull the plug on his marriage? Does Virginia love him, or merely want a father for her daughter?
"I never answer it specifically," Swofford says. "He has fondness for Virginia, but he also has this fondness for her father. His own father is dead and he is attempting to make reparations with Gen. Kindwall."
Swofford is now a happy civilian who has been living in New York City for the past two years. "It's really the first time in my adult life that I've been in one habitat for longer than nine or 10 months, and that's very settling," he says. " There is a regularity to how I'm living and working that is both satisfying and good."
He still receives cards, letters and e-mails about Jarhead from soldiers serving in Iraq. How has a soldier's lot changed in the 16 years since he took part in Desert Storm?
"What is different, obviously, is the carnage, the length of the war and what is happening politically in America because of the war," he says. "That changes the meaning of the war for the people who fight, and that's important when you come home and you perhaps have lost friends or been injured yourself and need to attach some kind of meaning to the war. That's a major difference. The meaning of this war is, as of yet, undecided."
Swofford sees no easy solution to America's involvement in Iraq. "I never thought we should have gone, but I do think that if we stay, we have to put more troops on the ground, because obviously what we're doing now isn't working. Security has to improve, and the only way that will happen with our assistance is with 100,000 more troops on the ground. But I'm not sure that Americans can stomach that, both in terms of cost and the loss of American and Iraqi lives."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.