New World Order, Same Old Story
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
By Anthony Swofford
Scribner. 287 pp. $25
There's something so right about the fusion of absurdity with the American military novel. Blame it on "Catch-22" or on Joseph Heller's literary predecessor, Jaroslav Hasek, whose classic "The Good Soldier Svejk" set the bar for 20th-century military satire. So it's no surprise to find the characters in Anthony Swofford's new novel, "Exit A," mired in wanton self-absorption, stumbling from one mistake to another, all while eyeing the North Korean communists sitting one bomber mission away with something of a wary indifference.
Except that "Exit A" isn't a satire. It begins with that caustic tone but then morphs into a prosaic love story, upending all the lively, comedic action of the first, and best, part.
It's 1989, and the chilly Cold War breeze is still blowing over Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo. Severin Boxx, high school football star and son of an ambitious, chronically absent colonel, is desperately in love with Virginia Sachiko Kindwall, the commanding general's gorgeous, half-Japanese daughter. And she has plans for him. Busy rebelling from her authoritarian father and pursuing a life of petty crime, Bonnie-and-Clyde style, she wants to recruit Boxx into her motley Japanese gang. But Boxx is torn between his love for her and his respect for her father, Gen. (a.k.a. "Coach") Kindwall, a three-tour Vietnam pilot who is ostensibly occupied with running a bomber wing but is really occupied with leading the base's football team to victory. On top of all this, a five-ton truck from the motor pool has just killed the teenage son of a prominent Japanese businessman, inciting local resentment against the U.S. occupation.
It's a promising start. Swofford sets American military culture against the urban Japanese underground, to engaging and original effect. Boxx and Virginia came into the world as lonely children, their births overshadowed by the Vietnam War. Now their lives are dominated by fathers wrapped up in the last thrashes of a dying world order. The displacement of the military brat within the nuclear family, and within society, is palpable:
"You could buy hot dogs on a stick after purchasing sneakers at the Athletic Shoe Factory, which was located next to a Baskin-Robbins counter, across the way from a Pizza Hut. Some of the kids had lived overseas for so long they didn't know that what lay in front of them was a replica trading center that could be found in thousands of American towns. They lived the suburban American dream without knowing it."
But in Part 2, Swofford turns abruptly away from the rich material he has developed. Years have passed. Virginia is living in Japan with her young prison-born daughter. Boxx is living with his wealthy psychoanalyst wife in San Francisco, mowing the grounds of the college where she teaches. When a postcard arrives from "Coach" Kindwall, now dying Kurtz-style in a hotel in Slum-town, Vietnam, Boxx is propelled on a journey toward his second monumental mistake. But his problems are new problems. Although his sense of social disconnection remains, it's an intellectual, sulk-in-your-gourmet-coffee kind of displacement, far removed from the gritty alleyways and subway terminals of Cold War Tokyo. That's okay, except that Swofford doesn't bring these two worlds together. Boxx moves between them, and his two lives, old and new, seem to compete with, rather than enlighten, each other. And when he finally visits Kindwall in Vietnam, it's unclear whether he's been driven by a haunting teenage love, by his ruined marriage or both.
In any case, Part 3 picks up where Part 1 left off. Boxx arrives in Vietnam to a frenzied feast of dog sausage and rice wine while outside, a parade of lantern boats flows along the river for the tourists. As in Part 2, Boxx is on a mission to return Kindwall's daughter to him. But why Kindwall is living (or, rather dying) in Vietnam, and not Tokyo, where his daughter lives, is never really addressed.
In place of character depth, we're left with narrative musings: "Had [Kindwall's] memories of war been so intense, so constant, that he had no choice but to return to their source?" We also get a few oblique attempts to connect the Vietnam War to Iraq:
"He wondered if, in thirty years, young men and women would visit Anbar Province to tour battle sites where their parents had fought and died. . . . But, Saigon had fallen to the enemy, and it was just now slowly coming out of its diplomatic and commercial thaw. Iraq would have to turn out like Japan, with an accommodating populace, if anything modern -- government, technology, or travel -- were to take hold."
Toward the end, the obstacles Swofford presents for Boxx seem drawn out merely for the purpose of delaying the inevitable ending. The fallout is a painfully one-dimensional love story, which is a shame because Swofford is capable of doing more, as he demonstrates both in the first half of his novel and in "Jarhead," his best-selling memoir about the 1991 Gulf War. In that book, he elegantly avoided a sentimental ending. In this book, unfortunately, he embraces it.