By Anthony Swofford
Simon & Schuster,
304 pages, $32
The flap copy on Anthony Swofford's first novel, Exit A, describes the book as "a tale told in a brooding voice filled with the simple human fury of being alive." What exactly this means I'm not sure, but what I do know is the voice has no more a sense of fury or life than a piece of cardboard.
It's hard writing a review like this. I was deeply affected by Swofford's bestselling memoir, Jarhead, about his time as a U.S. Marine during the first Gulf War in 1990. The book was subsequently made into a successful Hollywood movie and Swofford began writing a novel. I loved Jarhead enough to have begged for the assignment of Exit A with the expectation that he could pen a novel with the same intensity and skill that he did a non-fiction book.
Exit A tells the tale of Severin Boxx, a 17-year-old football player living on Yokota, the U.S. air base outside Tokyo. Severin is in love with the base general's daughter, Virginia Kindwall. General Kindwall is a military man ripped from any war movie, a cliché in every respect: a widowed and scarred Vietnam vet who coaches Severin's football team.
The general also has a Japanese girlfriend he hides from Virginia. Virginia is a hafu, part Japanese, part Caucasian, but belonging to neither culture. She seems to be a young man's idea of what a 1980s sexy bad girl is supposed to be: cool, aloof, dressed in black, pearls and diamonds -- and combat boots. By day, Virginia is a high school student obsessed with the movie Bonnie and Clyde. By night, she is a criminal in the Japanese underground. We get the idea that she is trying to work out her anger with her father through such exchanges as:
"Accomplish? Like a mission? I understand. you're trying to buy back seventeen years of guilt with one simple gesture -- so now you can live with her in this house, and I'm supposed to feel good for you?"
"I'm trying to make a family, sweetheart. I'm trying to give you a mother."
Virginia then runs away from home and lures Severin into her dark world because her seedy crime lord needs more muscle. And Severin, obsessed with Virginia, follows her down a path of darkness that leads them to a North Korean kidnapping ring. But then Severin snaps out of it and does the right thing. He goes off to have an unhappy life, while Virginia finds herself in prison where she eventually sees the error of her ways. Fifteen years later, they are united in happiness, their love a work of destiny.
Jarhead is a literary memoir -- the writing is hard and searing, at times poetic. The narrative is compelling and startlingly reflective. But disappointingly, there is nothing literary about Exit A, which reads like a romance novel. Swofford seems to have missed some fiction basics during his time at the vaunted University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he enrolled after returning from the Persian Gulf and wrote Jarhead.
Exit A is pushed forward by exposition, the characters unidentifiable without their names attached to every line of dialogue. The narrative is built on convenient coincidences, tidy endings and predictable behaviour of stereotypical characters, remarkable mostly for their sustained one-dimensionality.
For example, we meet Severin's wife Aida when we zoom 15 years ahead to San Francisco. They immediately explode into an argument about a postcard Severin has received from Gen. Kindwall (dying of cancer in Vietnam, where he feels at home):
" 'I need to think about it.' He was truly distressed.
" 'Why don't you try fixing things with your own father first, if you think this is about father figures? Did you skip therapy again this week?' She paced the kitchen.
" 'Of course I skipped therapy. You make the appointment, and I cancel them. That's a different issue. My father is dead. Dead men don't ask for favours.'
" 'But they talk to you from the grave. You can't solve your issues with your own father by reconciling with other fathers.'
" 'I don't think you understand fathers and sons.'
" 'I don't think you understand wives.' She walked out of the kitchen."
The dialogue feels imposed on Severin and Aida, as though Swofford doesn't trust his characters enough to let their voices rise organically. By the time the scene, no, by the time the book is finished, we don't really know anything about Aida other than she exists as a cathartic device.
The book jumps from Tokyo, 1989, to San Francisco, 2004, then to Vietnam and then to Japan with a few other stops along the way, but fails to create a world of its own. Swofford, who grew up on a U.S. base in Japan, has the bizarre world of U.S. military bases in Asia at his fingertips, but doesn't manage to convey any sense of this. The book reads like a very long treatment for a screenplay, as though waiting for a director to swoop in and supply the visuals and nuances.
The novel is told from multiple points of view for no more apparent reason than advancing the plot. If the author had committed to the perspective of one character and challenged himself with the task of revealing other characters through this perspective, then he might have had more success in capturing the passion and emotional agony that he clearly wants to. The book is ripe with missed opportunity and unexplored terrain.
I hope Swofford writes another novel, with skill of Jarhead, but this time surrendering to the demands of fiction and letting his characters breathe vitality and passion.
Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave, is the daughter of a former member of the Canadian military. She spent her early years on military bases and worked with high school students on a U.S. military base in South Korea. She is researching a book on war correspondents in southeast Asia.