Former Portlander Anthony Swofford's Exit A (Scribner, 307 pages, $25) presents exhibit A in this question, and it'll hardly make an open-and-shut case for those who argue the memoir has stolen the novel's potential great talents. Although the book doesn't have the shapeliness of Swofford's blockbuster memoir of life as a Gulf War I marine, Jarhead, it is an oddly fascinating novel, swift and bold, as unvarnished as a Chevy Nova without a muffler.
The tale opens in the 1980s on an American military base on the outskirts of Tokyo, where 17-year-old Severin Boxx plays football and dreams of scoring with Virginia Kindwall, the daughter of the base's "love the smell of napalm in the morning" commander. Little does Boxx know Virginia is in over her head with a gang of petty street criminals who hang out in the dingy alleyways and train stations outside the base's protective radius.
The tale of these two kids coming together and falling out has undeniable cinematic panache, and Swofford, who returns to Portland for a reading at Powell's on Monday, Jan. 15, boots it along with the big, thumping V-8 of his prose. It's not exactly a subtle ride. Swofford's writing idles in moments when it should gallop, and goes full bore into an extended riff when one wishes for quieter access to the characters' minds.
By following Severin into his tortured adulthood, however, Swofford brings the tale full-circle to a satisfying conclusion. WW recently caught up with Swoff (as he is called in the 2005 filmic version of his life) from his weekend home in upstate New York, where he sounded a far gentler note than one might expect.
WW: This book seems to draw on your life growing up on an American military base in Japan. Why not write it, too, as a memoir?
Anthony Swofford: A memoir is a really particular form—and there is nothing that happened in my life that was quite as crazy and incredible as being in the Marine Corps. A novel allowed me much more—to inhabit the character of a military general, a 17-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl as they grew.
Where did the idea come from?
My family lived on a base in Japan—I was age 4 to 8. But in Jarhead I wrote about the men who fight and the kind of casualties that they are. Here I was thinking a lot of the domestic side. It really opened up this book.
Do you worry at all that by presenting the domestic side of military life some might read this book as an endorsement of what the military does?
There is always that possibility. But the novel is first and foremost a fiction. The characters I made up. It's a smaller kind of politics: The politics of family. Sons and daughters. I think that, as a society, we're quite willing as well to not think about what the soldier goes through and what happens upon his return. Around the holidays, it's very sad—but by the second of January that story will have cycled out. There is a heavy burden that the families pay as well.
Jarhead is such a masculine, man's-world book. I was surprised to find a female character at the heart of this novel.
In the first 50 or so pages of the manuscript Virginia was not an important character, but around page 60 she became quite vivid and began to take over some of the story. I guess I wrote her using the conduit of my own sisters.
I feel a lot of Mailer rising up from these pages. Was he an influence?
Yes and no. Julio CortÁzar was a big influence on me—his book Hopscotch. I read that early in college and it has opened up the world to me, the way that language can seduce and drive a story. William Gass is a favorite writer of mine. So is Joy Williams, who was one of my teachers at Iowa. Thomas Mann.
I never would have guessed that group. In some ways, Virginia feels a bit like a character out of a noir fiction—a little bit beyond the reach of our view all the time.
I think part of what makes that important to Virginia's character is her being biracial, racially confused and isolated. It has more to do with being an outsider. That she grew up in a very masculine world, by a single father who happened to have a lot of armament at [his] fingertips.
The world you describe around the base—with its massage parlors and seedy bars—is so vivid. Why did you decide to skip forward to the present day?
I wanted to meet up with these characters years later. See where they were in their lives—Virginia especially, being an outsider in a very homogenous country. I think the results of growing up in that military world, under that system, take many years to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced.
Anthony Swofford reads from Exit A at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4631. 7:30 pm. Monday, Jan. 15. Free. John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.