Former U.S. marine Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir of the first Gulf War, Jarhead, was a monster hit. It garnered both sales and scads of literary street cred. Martin Amis and The New York Times gushed. The book and the subsequent film are cultural markers. (A 2011 film I co-wrote on Canada’s war in Afghanistan, Afghan Luke, was referred to by the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell as “more Jarhead than Apocalypse Now,” and he didn’t mean that as an entirely negative thing).
Now arrives, after a novel in between, a second memoir. The title is a neat summary of the book’s contents. Swofford’s financial and artistic victories led him into a lot of hotel rooms chasing hedonistic pleasures (sex, drugs, etc.), and hospitals reporting on the awful toll war exacts on soldiers unlucky enough to have failed to dodge a bullet. The title’s third element, jail, is both a literal and a figurative reference. Swofford spends a night in the hoosegow having drunkenly totalled his BMW sports car along a country road in upstate New York.
More’s the point, Swofford is, for the better part of the book, locked in a jail of the mind, unable to extricate himself from the rage he feels toward his complicated, charming and ornery father (also a former military man), John Swofford.
A couple of chapters are devoted to RV trips he takes with the old boy in an effort to, as Swofford Sr. puts it, “get the venom out.” Any son who is at least honest with himself concerning the, er, complications of the father-son entanglement will wince with recognition at Swofford’s struggling in quicksand.
In the midst of these road trips, Swofford fils deconstructs a brutal series of letters received from Swofford père concerning the former’s shortcomings as a son and a man. It’s a grinding, intense labour for the reader and, one suspects, for the writer. It’s writing as therapy, and as a means of furthering the story oscillates between fascinating and alienating. The back-and-forth is instructive not so much for the specifics of their disagreements as the tenor of two men trapped in an inherently fraught relationship (see Rex, Oedipus). To wit:
Father: “Since you made it ‘big time’ … you seem to gloat at being an arrogant, self-centred, person exhibiting the lowest level of responsibility … love, Dad.”
Son: “I’m unorganized. I lose stuff. I don’t write things down. I miss appointments. I piss people off. It has nothing to do with any success, or any sums of money. It’s just who I am.”
Father: “You may not open this for three or four months or for that matter ever … is it unreasonable that we expect responsible behaviour from you?”
It’s classic push-pull father-son stuff, the induced unconditional admission of guilt rendering the subsequent declaration of independence – “It’s just who I am” – null and void. Swofford’s writerly efforts in this regard are specific, raw and intense. He apologizes for neither party. It’s far and away the best part of the book because, as with his descriptions of military life in Jarhead, his observations issue from a “privileged” position. He knows whereof he speaks.
This is less true of his reportage. The scenes between himself and the patients, caregivers and parents at the Bethesda naval hospital are somewhat stilted and overdetermined. Take, for instance, this description of his meeting with the mother of a wounded soldier: “She locked on to my eyes in a mildly wild and erotic way. … She possessed the orderly smell of all good mothers. Her son would be fine. He would be fine. He would never walk and he might not talk, but he would have his mother and somehow they would both know this and be well.”
How, one wonders, can a “smell” be “orderly”? As for the bit about the erotic connection between himself and the grieving mother, well let’s just say (and this is true throughout) that Swofford doesn’t lack for confidence in his powers of attraction.
Still, on the whole, Swofford does a reasonable job of portraying himself as the flawed-though-always-struggling-to-improve victim/beneficiary of his own success. In the end, the writer is redeemed by the love of a good woman, the birth of his child and reconciliation with his father. In the right hands, like Oedipus, that too is an old story that endures.
Douglas Bell’s memoir is titled Run Over: A Boy, his Mother and an Accident.