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After 'Jarhead,' a memoir of drugs, booze, daddy issues

Anthony Swofford's second memoir carries a catchy title borrowed from the first line of a poem about melancholy. But a more appropriate title might be, "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned, and, By the Way, I Hate My Birth Father."

The bless-me title captures the essence of the work: Swofford writes of his bouts with drugs, alcohol and women as if he were confessing the transgressions. His memories of his father offer another side of him -- vitriol.

Swofford's first memoir, "Jarhead," about his days as a sniper in the First Gulf War, was a huge success that was turned into a movie of the same name. Jake Gylenhaal played him. It brought Swofford fame and fortune.

But that was then. "Hotels" is now, and Swofford reveals how he lost his fortune to excesses in the aforementioned categories. Like flying women halfway across the world to share drugs, booze and sex with him; once housing three sex partners in the same Tokyo hotel for a week.

It's as if in almost every memory, a woman enters the picture and sex ensues. Except when he remembers his father. Then it is pure venom, lashing out at the man who sired him, belittling him, ridiculing him, raging at him. Swofford uses his literary talent, and he has plenty of it, to get even for a childhood he remembers as woeful.

His father, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, cheated on Swofford's mother. He presided over his domain in militaristic fashion, keeping detailed lists of the proper way to complete tasks, and he all but ignored Swofford, his younger son.

Swofford writes often of one memory, the time he missed one of the backyard dog droppings during his weekly pick-up chore. Allowance was dispensed only if chores were satisfactorily completed. His father, he writes, dragged him from the house and pushed his face inches from the putrid pile, although his father recollects the distance between face and pile quite differently.

"Hotels" details Swofford's unsuccessful efforts to connect as an adult with his father, divorced and suffering from emphysema. They take trips in his father's RV, but raging arguments always accompany them. On one trip Swofford considers killing his father by yanking from their tanks the plastic tubes that carry life-sustaining oxygen to him.

Swofford chastises his father often for failing to attend his older brother's funeral, an unforgivable sin in Swofford's eyes that torments him throughout the work. "Goddamn, I hated the man for that," Swofford writes. "That is a long time to hate your father. To stomach this hate any longer just might kill me, I knew. But parts of me loved to hate."

Surprisingly, Swofford includes his father's attempts to reach his son, to explain his wanderings and missteps, to make him understand why it was too painful for him to attend his son's funeral. But Swofford will have none of it.
"Get the venom out," his father tells him on one road trip. "Do you want to beat me? Do you want to kick my ass the way I once kicked your ass? Will that help? You can do it, if that'll help."

What apparently did help somewhat was Swofford finding love, marrying and fathering a daughter. "For many years," he writes, "I had considered combat the only test of a man's greatness, but I'd begun to understand that for me fatherhood would be the real measure."

Swofford gives no hint that his father has died and, ironically in this treatise of filial venom, Swofford tells the reader "Hotels" was written "for my father."

Hopefully, his father won't read it.

Lee Coppola is the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.

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Hotels, Hospitals and Jails, A Memoir

By Anthony Swofford

TwelveBooks

276 pages, $26.99