Second attempts at recapturing previous success inevitably beg comparisons and promote high expectations. Such is the challenge Anthony Swofford faced with "Exit A," his second book but first novel.
Swofford's 2003 memoir of the first Gulf War, "Jarhead," was widely praised as perhaps the best combat memoir to emerge since Vietnam had given us Michael Herr's "Dispatches." Few first books earn a spot in Hollywood, and fewer still become screenplays that find their authors portrayed by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal under the direction of Sam Mendes. "Jarhead's" well-deserved critical success in print and on screen necessarily burdened its author with high expectations.
Enter "Exit A," a broad, ambitious journey from adolescence to middle age in the lives of two military brats, both born in July of 1972, whose paths cross continents and generations and cultures while encountering unfulfilled love and growth, dissolution, and eventual reunification. All of the immutable elements of human relationships are here: first love, adolescent angst and rebellion, criminality, punishment, redemption, forgiveness, closure.
Severin Boxx is the high school football-star son of an Air Force colonel, and Virginia Sachiko Kindwall is a Japanese Hafu, or "half-American," rebellious daughter of General Oliver Kindwall. Virginia's mother dies giving birth to her daughter, and Severin's mother nearly dies. Neither character's warrior father is present for his child's birth. They're just the beginnings of lives without fully present or functioning parents for each, the lives of military kids who are continually subjugated to the larger goals of their fathers in the act of maintaining American military presence around the globe.
Where "Exit A" falls short -- and, unfortunately, it does so far and often -- the failure is often a shortcoming of execution, an apparently incomplete mastery of an untried genre. The failure is attributable, perhaps, to Swofford's reach exceeding his grasp in the leap from best-selling memoirist to novelist.
What Swofford fails to grasp in "Exit A" are the rudiments of narrative pace, the capacity of dialogue to both advance plot and reveal character, and the subtleties of narrative point of view. Each is critical for establishing reliability, and, ultimately, trust in the narrator.
For example, Swofford's omniscient narrator is everywhere -- as, of course, he should be. However, narrative point of view shifts at an often dizzying and distracting pace. It's like having an overbearing schoolmarm directing you through the story, stopping periodically to tell you what you've just been shown, and perhaps asking, just for good measure, "Do you get it?"
These would be just petty annoyances were it not for the fact that narrative credibility is so crucial to a novel this ambitious. It's disappointing and ironic that Swofford's memoir showed us the first Gulf War with such clarity, candor, and ease, but his novel suffers from a suffocating tendency to try to tell the reader a story. Confident writers have faith in their ability to show so that they don't have to tell.
There are times when Swofford neither shows nor tells in "Exit A." The confident writing that permeated "Jarhead" is, sadly, only an infrequent and inadequate treat in "Exit A."
Steve McCabe is a local freelance writer.
Exit A: A novel
By Anthony Swofford
Scribner, 287 pages, $25.00.