Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | Reviews

Exit A by Anthony Swofford

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Exit A

"When have you chased love?" Though the question isn't posed until the book is nearly over, Anthony Swofford's novel Exit A is a meditation on the question.

Swofford's memoir, Jarhead (2003), was a much-celebrated, grisly account of his experience as a frontline infantry marine in the First Gulf War. Exit A, his first novel, takes place at Yakota Air Base near Tokyo. It's the story of two Americans who grow up military brats and spend the bulk of their lives trying to escape from themselves and their upbringing.

It's the story of Severin Boxx -- a football star without ambition, born on the eve of the Fourth of July -- and Virginia Kindwall, whose Japanese mother is dead, and whose father, the commanding general at Yakota, is frequently absent and always inscrutable. Both grow up isolated -- without siblings or any other family. The military governs every facet of their lives.

The teenaged Boxx doesn't seem to mind, but Virginia rebels by flaunting her untouchable sexuality (she is, after all, the General's daughter). A big fan of Bonnie and Clyde, this gangster wannabe also gets her kicks by robbing convenience stores. When she unsuccessfully tries to enlist Boxx in a heist, things go awry. Virginia is sent to prison; Boxx is shipped to relatives in San Francisco, where he grows up and marries a woman who bosses him around. Then he gets the call from General Kindwall, who is dying and wants to see his estranged daughter.

Complications abound in the novel, resulting in a disconcerting pile-up of events. Why does Boxx bother to earn a Ph.D. but mow lawns for a living? Why does he suddenly think his wife is having an affair? Why does Virginia seduce a prison guard to have a baby?

Without answers to such questions, it's hard for readers to sympathize with Swofford's characters and their lives. "When have you chased love?" Maybe a better question would have been why.