Anthony Swofford

"Exit A"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross FEB 17, 2008)

Exit A by Anthony Swofford

Having mostly enjoyed Swofford's first book, the hugely successful Gulf War memoir Jarhead, I was curious to see what his fiction would be like. This somewhat uneven debut is written in much the same style prose, and does an equally good job taking the reader into a world they probably don't know firsthand. In Jarhead, Swofford himself was our guide to the first Gulf War, while here teenage Severin Boxx is our all-American guide to life on an American military base in Tokyo.

The first section is set on and around Yokata Air Base circa 1989, and is very effective at capturing the uneasy mix of American and Japanese culture. The base commandant's half-Japanese daughter Virginia is the living embodiment of this cross-cultural tension. Somewhat predictably, she's a loose cannon -- a crackling vortex of cliched teenage rebellion with a bizarre fascination with Faye Dunnaway's Bonnie from the 1972 film Bonnie and Clyde. As it happens, her father is also the high school football coach, and linebacker Severin's loyalties are torn between his coach and Virginia, whom he has a crush on. Swofford resolves this tension in a fairly over-the-top scene at a football game, which segues into a wholly ridiculous subplot involving a Japanese hood and kidnappings engineered by North Korean intelligence.

The curtain drops, and then raises some fifteen years later. Severin is now in his early 30s, living a very comfortable life in San Francisco with his moneyed professor of psychology wife. Although the plain-thinking teenager has grown up to earn a doctorate in French something-or-other, he's turned his back on academia and works as a groundskeeper at his wife's school. Although this section occasionally skips back over to Japan, where we learn what happened to Virginia, the bulk concerns Severin's clearly doomed marriage. As in the first part, this plays out in a rather unbelievable manner, and there's a distinctly artificial feeling, culminating in a bizarre "gotcha" scene.

The final third of the book is set in motion by a mysterious message Severin receives from his old coach. It seems he wants to hire Severin to track Virginia down and bring her to Vietnam (where he has retired) before he dies. This sends Severin to Vietnam and then Japan to confront all of themes the book has built up: facing one's past mistakes, reconciliation, first love, forgiveness, and so forth. Again, there is an element of implausibility to it all, and a rather convenient film festival plays a significant role.

Despite the various implausibilities and problems, the book is not without its charm. Swofford's prose is a pleasure to read, and in Severin, he skillfully captures a certain type of American male. The ending is surprisingly conventional and perhaps reveals Swofford's inner sentimental self. However, the central characters are all flawed and unlikable enough that the reader may not feel they deserve such a soft touch.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews


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About the Author:

Anthony SwoffordAnthony Swofford served in a U.S. Marine Corps Surveillance and Target Acquisition/Scout-Sniper platoon during the Gulf War. After the war, he was educated at American River College; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught at the University of Iowa and Lewis and Clark College. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, Men's Journal, The Iowa Review, and other publications. A Michener-Copernicus Fellowship recipient, he lives in New York.

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