"John Updike writes about what he writes about and what he knows," Anthony Swofford tells me from his New York apartment, when asked whether or not he's concerned about being pigeonholed as a military writer. "I know this world—I grew up in it. It's my 'Connecticut suburbs.' It's like Philip Roth's Jersey City to me."
Later this month, Swofford's first novel, Exit A, will hit the bookshelves, but it's certainly not the ex-Marine's (and ex-Portlander) first foray into the literary world. In 2003, Jarhead, his memoir about being a gutsy and confused kid in a sniper platoon during the first Gulf War, was published to nearly universal acclaim. Even the New York Times' resident book savage, Michiko Kakutani, gushed over Swofford's elegant but tough prose and called the book "a searing contribution to the literature of combat." (Jarhead was also, of course, made into a very fine movie that starred a super-buff Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford.) But writing your memoirs and conjuring a novel from thin air are two entirely different beasts, and many readers were eager to see how Swofford's first stab at long-form fiction turned out. Having just completed Exit A, I feel confident in saying that few will be disappointed.
Exit A begins in Tokyo in 1989. But instead of the familiar setting of a traditional culture adapting to its technological prowess, Swofford's Tokyo is entirely different—and altogether familiar. The action begins on an enormous American Air Force base populated by Westerners and surrounded by Pizza Huts and Baskin-Robbins. Severin Boxx is a high school student and star football player under the mentorship of the enormous, imposing base colonel, General Kindwall.
"The general's face looked as though two pit bulls had played catch with it," Swofford writes.
Kindwall's daughter Virginia, a half-Japanese petty criminal, is a far lovelier, self-possessed, and sexual character who looks like "a dark-haired Faye Dunaway from a punk rock remake of Bonnie and Clyde." Severin falls hard for Virginia, whose drug use and gun-waving stand in stark contrast to Severin's all-American charm, and when Virginia gets sucked into an international kidnapping plot... well, things start to get deep.
If the plot sounds pulpy so far, it's anchored by Swofford's imagistic, fierce prose. Women are described as possessing faces "made of shattered glass" with mouths thin "like the blade of a knife." Severin's loud English in a hotel lobby sounds like "two boards being beaten together in an empty concert hall." Vivid descriptions like these, and wholly formed, surprising characters, imbibe Exit A with a meaty gravity that perfectly complements the engrossing narrative.
Severin's teen adoration of Virginia and her mostly accidental crime spree occupy only the first half of Exit A. Swofford reintroduces us to the characters 15 years later, barely recognizable from their passionate youth. Virginia leads a secret life as a silently forgiven outcast in her native country. Her father, the domineering football coach and general, has dropped off the face of the earth after disgracing himself in Japan. And Severin—let's just say our protagonist isn't doing so hot. He's settled for a job as the groundskeeper at Berkeley, where his wife is a tough-as-nails, spare-me-the-bullshit professor who may be having an affair with a student bartender from the faculty lounge. Severin is the prototypical beaten man—defeated, gutless, and fine with it. Then one day a postcard arrives from Virginia's father; he's dying and begs Severin to find his daughter. After raising hell and destroying his life to tragicomic proportions, the ex-football star conjures up some of the old stuff and heads east. From here, the book descends into a psychological journey reminiscent of Marlow's trip downriver in Heart of Darkness or when Milkman leaves Michigan in Song of Solomon.
THE LITERATURE OF ENGAGEMENT
Occupation is a central theme in Exit A: World War II is 50 years past when the book opens, yet over 14,000 American servicemen and their families occupy a heavily guarded section of Tokyo. The two populations coexist warily, until a tragic accident happens one day, and the Japanese demand accountability from the military presence. I asked Swofford if it would be incorrect to read this as a parable about the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"That would not be an incorrect interpretation," he answered. "Every day that I worked on the book, we were engaged in this current war, and the long-term effects of that American military presence in the Middle East were certainly on my mind every day."
Still, Swofford maintains that the literature of war and combat are not dominant influences on his writing, stating simply that, "Those aren't the books I reread every year."
GOING TO THE MOVIES
It's virtually impossible to meet someone who's been portrayed on the big screen by Jake Gyllenhaal and not ask how the experience went, but for the sake of not being a celeb-whore, I coolly asked what it was like to see his book turned into a big-budget Sam Mendes film.
"I was very fortunate in that all the people involved were very careful about the book and knew it very well. Because of that and the talent involved, I didn't have a lot of anxiety over it. I trusted Sam Mendes and [screenwriter] Bill Broyles, and I was really fine with letting go of the project. I was confident that the emotional and psychological center of Jarhead the book would be there on the screen."
So what are the odds of seeing Exit A at the movie theater sometime?
"I've talked with the people who produced Jarhead, and we've kicked around ideas of what the movie of Exit A would be like. If the right people were involved, I'd certainly want to move forward with it."
But now we're getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, there's a cool, unflinching novel on the shelves about loyalty, adolescence, criminality, love, Japan, and Bonnie and Clyde. The book's called Exit A, and it's a damn good first read of 2007.
Anthony Swofford will read from Exit A at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Monday, January 15, at 7:30 pm. Free.