Swoff’s gentle side

Sacramento native Anthony Swofford’s Exit A doesn’t have the shapeliness of the writer’s blockbuster tale of life as a Gulf War Marine in Jarhead. Still, it is an oddly fascinating novel, swift and bold, as unvarnished as a Chevy Nova without a muffler.

The tale opens in the 1980s on an American military base on the outskirts of Tokyo, where 17-year-old Severin Boxx plays football and dreams of scoring with Virginia Kindwall, the daughter of the base’s “love the smell of napalm in the morning” commander. Little does Boxx know Virginia is in over her head with a gang of petty street criminals who hang out in the dingy alleyways and train stations outside the base’s protective radius.

The tale of these two kids coming together and falling out has undeniable cinematic panache, and Swofford boots it along with the big thumping V-8 of his prose. I recently caught up with Swoff (as he is called in the filmic version of his life) and he sounded a far gentler note than one might expect.

This book seems to draw on your life growing up on an American military base in Japan. Why not write it, too, as a memoir?

A memoir is a really particular form and there is nothing that happened in my life that was quite as crazy and incredible as being in the Marine Corps. A novel allowed me much more to inhabit the character of a military general, a 17-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl and as they grew.

Where did the idea come from?

My family lived on a base in Japan when I was age 4 to 8. But in Jarhead I wrote about the men who fight and the kind of casualties that they are. Here I was thinking a lot of the domestic side. It really opened up this book.

Do you worry at all that by presenting the domestic side of military life some might read this book as an endorsement of what the military does?

There is always that possibility. But the novel is first and foremost a fiction. … I think that as a society, we’re quite willing to not think about what the soldier goes through and what happens upon his return. Around the holidays, it’s very sad, but by the second of January that story will have cycled out.

Jarhead is such a masculine, man’s world book. I was surprised to find a female character at the heart of this novel.

In the first 50 or so pages of the manuscript Virginia was not an important character, but around page 60 she became quite vivid and began to take over some of the story. I guess I wrote her using the conduit of my own sisters.

I feel a lot of Norman Mailer rising up from these pages. Was he an influence?

Yes and no. Julio Cortázar was a big influence on me, his book Hopscotch. I read that early in college and it has opened up the world to me, the way that language can seduce and drive a story. William Gass is a favorite writer of mine. So is Joy Williams, who was one of my teachers at Iowa.

The world you describe around the base, with its massage parlors and seedy bars, is so vivid. Why did you decide to skip forward to the present day?

I wanted to meet up with these characters years later. See where they were in their lives. Virginia especially—being an outsider in a very homogenous country. I think the results of growing up in that military world, under that system, takes many years to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced.