Swofford Takes Right Turn at Exit A

As you may have heard, it’s hot in Chicago. Actually, looking at the weather map of the whole country, it’s all shades of brown and beige, as if it’s covered by sand dunes. I’m typing this slowly to conserve energy.

I finished Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead last Friday, and over the weekend I read about half of Exit A, his soon-to-be-released first novel. I had wondered if Exit A might be a fictionalized version of some aspect of Jarhead, but Swofford wisely moves into new territory – although it’s still territory he knows well.

Exit A is about Severin Boxx, a teenager living on a U.S. Air Force base in Japan, and Virginia Kindwall, the half-Japanese (hafu, although I don’t think that’s the nice way to say it) daughter of the base general. Severin is in love with Virginia, and Virginia is the base general’s daughter. General Kindwall is also the hard-ass coach of Severin’s football team. Severin is a clean-cut All-American type, and Virginia idolizes Bonnie and Clyde and carries a gun in her purse.

It’s a great setup for either a young-adult novel or a crime novel, and while there are elements of both, I think Swofford is trying to do something more. There is a strong coming-of-age angle, but when I closed the book last night, the story had jumped some years into the future and so I’ll be curious to see where it leads next. The start is certainly promising, with well-drawn, unusual characters and unusual twists on somewhat familiar settings. Like Jarhead, Exit A explores the side of military life that doesn’t show up in the recruitment brochures or on the nightly news. Swofford explores the strange symbiosis of base and city, the resentment of the locals toward the soldiers, the way Japanese punks and U.S. flyboys end up moshing together in the living room of an out-of-control off-base party.

I had wondered whether Swofford could make the leap to fiction – perhaps assuming that he was too untrained as a writer. So far he seems quite comfortable in fiction, though, as in Jarhead, he’s still betrayed by a weakness for the extravagant simile:

The kickoff whistle blew and profanity and shrill screams of pain and elation echoed around the stadium like wild cyclists speeding at the upper lanes of a velodrome. 

I also see, under his author photo (bearded, green military-looking jacket) that he is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. So, both as a soldier and a writer, he has received training reserved for elites (how many snipers hold an MFA?). At Iowa they might have trained him better to kill his darlings, but most of his writing is, thankfully, lean and muscular.

Now I wish that I hadn’t lingered so long over Jarhead – my reviews of Exit A and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are due on Friday – but I’m really glad I read it.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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