Anthony Swofford has a daddy problem. His father, it turns out, “built a roof of shame for his family to live under.” The details of that failed relationship spool out gracelessly, tediously and minutely — gathered loosely into a book that reads like a few dozen afterthoughts taped together at random.
Nine years ago, the former Marine published his first book to great acclaim. “Jarhead,” a Gulf War memoir, told a story about a military institution in a particular cultural setting and a particular war. It was a book by a young writer who was able to look around and describe the world he saw.
In the intervening years, Swofford’s view has shrunk. He no longer appears to see much more than himself, placing the next decade of his life story in a hazy cultural setting of no apparent importance. His world has become merely personal. This choice seems to reflect a publishing convention as much as it suggests a writer’s choice. As Swofford tells us about his second wife, also a writer, “Christa sat at home in Brooklyn writing her own book about her own dysfunctional family.”
A decontextualized and largely humorless narrative focused narrowly on hurt feelings among family members will tend to become impossibly petty and impossibly dull. So Swofford borrows a car from his father, and we get to read a full page of the elder Swofford’s letter about the episode, explaining (among other things) what happened when he went to renew the registration. It turns out that “there were two more unpaid tickets plus late charges.” The book’s cover suggests adventure; the pages deliver late fees at the DMV.
But that particular story isn’t over yet. Though the writer cops to the tickets, readers will not escape his determination to place them in their precise emotional and familial context: “I’ll admit that I am terrible at paying parking tickets and other fines. This is part laziness, part the scofflaw in me. Like my father, I seek adversity. Adversity gives me a story, a narrative to write against. So I didn’t pay a few parking tickets. But I swear I never told my dad I would pay his car payments and insurance.” If, as a writer, you think your unpaid parking tickets give you “a narrative to write against” for public consumption, please reconsider.
Readers who are fascinated by long discussions about the psychological implications of unpaid parking tickets, however, will find Swofford’s narrative endlessly engaging. This kind of writing makes up the whole story.
In particular, Swofford dwells artlessly and endlessly on his joyless sex life. He has dinner with a former fiancée, “and then we went to her apartment and had sex and watched Charlie Rose.” Before the page is over, they do it again, and it’s every bit as interesting to read about it the second time: “We had sex. I grilled steaks. We drank a 1999 Volnay. We had sex again, and again in the morning, and I took her to the bus station.” And so on, and so on, and so on.
Swofford labors mightily to turn all of this thin material and flat affect into a story that swells into a triumphant narrative about a damaged person who overcomes his past, but the story doesn’t hold the weight of that ambition. His mother visits, for example, and she makes enchiladas for him and his new wife. Swofford liked his mother’s enchiladas when he was a child. Cue thunder. “Tonight the enchiladas disappoint with a surprising blandness, and my mother knows it and I know it and Christa knows it, but we tell my mother that the enchiladas are great and we both take seconds because this is what you tell your sixty-eight-year-old mother.” Dinner is bland, and that hard truth hovers in a family’s home as an unspoken tension between generations. Will there be salsa? Or are the wounds too deep?
Then Swofford draws the conclusion, and we discover that the enchilada episode is a moment of personal growth. “Someday when my mother has passed,” he writes, bringing death into a story about Mexican food, “I will remember the night in Woodstock when I left my foodie pretensions in the canned food aisle of the supermarket and my mother cooked the enchiladas of my childhood for my wife and daughter.”
Someone has unaccountably published a book about unpaid parking tickets and bland enchiladas.
Finally, Swofford goes out on the road to conquer his family demons, driving around in a recreational vehicle with his father so they can have it out and heal themselves. Shockingly enough, it kind of works, and he discovers himself loving his father more than ever before. “I began to think of the RV as a truth machine, a narrative machine, like a photo booth but better — a story booth,” Swofford writes. As they drove around in their truth machine booth, “our mouths were spades, digging toward truth.” So they were in a photo story truth machine booth with shovel mouths, and that’s how they rediscovered love. Fortunately, no one tried to serve enchiladas.
By Anthony Swofford
Twelve. 276 pp. $26.99