Money, fame, sex and drugs didn’t do it for former Sacramentan and Jarhead author Anthony Swofford. He had to make peace with his past.
Anthony Swofford is a writer of painful and painfully powerful prose, stories about long stretches of boredom meeting lightning bursts of terror while a U.S. Marine during the 1990 Persian Gulf prequel, tales of suicidal and homicidal ideation, and of a regimented existence as the son of a career airman and Vietnam veteran.
He’s also a former Sacramentan who spent his years after leaving the military, between 1993 and 1999, living in Midtown, attending American River College, then graduating from UC Davis. His first book, Jarhead, which recalls his time as a 20-year-old sniper during the Persian Gulf War, rocketed him to literary fame and was made into a film by an A-list director (Sam Mendes) starring A-list actors (Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx). It also made him temporarily rich.
But the story, written 10 years after the first Gulf War ended and nine after he left the Marines, closes with a heartbreaking cry that shows Swofford is, above all, a master of endings.
He had gone to war and that gave him the right to despair, not just about the human condition, but also of atrocities to come: “Indolence and cowardice do not drive me—despair drives me … when I despair, I am alone, and I am often alone,” he writes in the final pages of Jarhead. “What did I hope to gain? More bombs are coming. Dig your holes with the hands God gave you.”
That was then. Then came the fame and the money and copious amounts of alcohol and the occasional batch of recreational drugs. And women. So much sex with so many women, including a trip to Tokyo that saw him bedding three different women—two that he flew in and installed on separate floors of the same hotel, and a third a subway stop away—without the others finding out.
The money went away and with it so did the Manhattan apartment he bought, a purchase made the day after a long night of cocaine. He packed some treasured belongings—a few pieces of art he had collected, the hand-crafted desk made by a Japanese woodworker, some cases of wine—and moved to the Catskills to rid himself of bad habits and bad relationships, or possibly to just end it all. He thought more about suicide, but he thought more about being his father’s son.
His father, John Howard Swofford, is at the heart of his latest book, Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails. It’s by no means an easy read. In it, Swofford pours out his rage over a father-son relationship highlighted by his father’s bullying, affairs, bad behavior toward his family and failure to pull himself together and attend the funeral of Swofford’s older brother Jeff, who died of cancer in 1998.
One reviewer has called it a “treatise of filial venom” in which Swofford uses his considerable literary talent to get even. But really, it’s a redemption story told after Swofford takes three RV trips with his father, who lives in Fairfield and is still hanging on after more than a decade of emphysema mixed with the after-effects of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. During the trips, taken to visit various national parks and family members around the country, they battle mightily about their fractured past.
Swofford says father hasn’t yet read a galley of the book, and he doesn’t know how he’ll respond when he does. The book, released this past month, includes excerpts from a 10-page letter his father sent him in 2006, and Swofford’s rebuttal to it. The release also will bring Swofford back to Sacramento this week, with a talk and signing planned for this Friday. (See column note for details.)
“I think he’ll have difficulty with it,” Swofford says. “My father is a sophisticated enough guy to know and understand I had extreme problems with him and some of his parenting when I was a kid. And then his attempts to bond with me and decide it was OK to talk to me about certain of his behaviors. It might be he’s not happy with it, but it was mine to write about.”
It’s partly this past, though, both as a military brat with an authoritarian father and also as a Marine, that led to his current state of contentment. In the last chapters of Hotels, Swofford writes of finally meeting the woman he was meant to—the step-daughter of a Marine with family issues of her own. It wasn’t even a blind date that matched Swofford with writer-photographer Christa Parravani; it was dumb luck involving a dinner and a mutual friend.
They’ve been inseparable ever since. They married in 2010, and have a 9-month-old daughter, Josephine. It’s a good thing, too, because the 41-year-old Swofford says his biological clock had kicked in with a vengeance.
“It started going off when I was 40—small nuclear blasts right around then,” he says. “I would think, ‘If I have a kid today, I’ll be 55 when my kid is 15. Is my back going to go out? Will I have diabetes? I have to do it now.’”
He says his wife understands him in ways he does not, and does not judge his past. “I met her, and it was, ‘I found my person, and it’s about time.’ We let out this big sigh of relief, because there was this feeling of goodness.”
The couple lives in a converted barn on the grounds of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, N.Y. They trade off baby time: He walks for miles most mornings with Josephine strapped in a carrier on his chest while Christa works on her first book—the story of her identical twin’s overdose death six years ago in the wake of a violent abduction and rape. Then Christa hangs with Josephine while Swofford noodles his next book—he has some pages of a novel (“It could be called an Iraq War novel,” he says) about the after-effects of losing a son at war.
He’s also searching for a new nonfiction topic, possibly something military- or intelligence-themed. “I’d like a big book that takes a couple of years and some reporting that drives me and excites me,” he says.
Asked if he finds life normal now—with a wife he loves and who loves him back, and a baby they’re both crazy about—and Swofford admits maybe he’s not sure what normal is. With two artist parents, baby Josephine “is probably going to end up as a banker or a lawyer,” he says.
Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails ends with Swofford introducing his father to Josephine, and with Swofford’s own realization that while he once considered combat the only test of a man’s greatness, the real test of that comes with fatherhood.
“I have no doubt I’ll do things wrong and make mistakes,” he says, “but I’m totally committed to raising my daughter in a home that’s happy, where there is goodness no matter what.”
And if that doesn’t show Swofford is a master of endings, maybe nothing else ever can.