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Friday, June 12, 2015

"Hotels, Hospitals and, Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford should be the last book I pick up at the present time.  Nevertheless, I picked it up and read it voraciously with the love of literature only tragedy and pain can bring.  We all read to escape, and there should be no shame attached to that fact.  I consider myself testament to that fact.  Anthony Swofford is best known as the author of "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War," later a fairly uneventful film at the box office.  He has been treated unfairly by the critics after his first book, and as a result, quickly took on the unfortunate label of "one hit wonder" among the literary circles of both the east and west coasts.  I remember finding his second book, the novel "Exit A: a Novel" on the remainder stacks just a few months after it was published.  The reviews were not only unfair, but tragically written by critics who obviously failed to veil their personal contempt with anything resembling a fair language.  This is as unfortunate as it is unfair.  Swofford is a great writer.  He delves into personal and psychological traits of tortured people with the same delicate touch as he does fragile details of young love and other emotional topics.  His description of the Saudi Arabian desert, among with the terrific exposition of emotion/stress and heartbreaking disappointment in "Jarhead" should be considered as classic as Hemingway's famous description of the Italian retreat from Caporetto... but then again, that's just my opinion.  Aside from my education, writing and literature teaching career, I'm just a bitter former U.S. Marine that's proud of his Marine brother making it big. 

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails" redirects attention from the glamor of literary success to the everyday struggle to keep a promising career afloat in the fact of personal and professional missteps.  Swafford is as brutal with his own family members (his father in particular) as he is with other topics regarding his own behavior.  The telling of his postwar memoir reads like a travel guide to the fifth circle of hell.  Is Swafford a reckless drunk who turns to the pen to air his dirty family laundry with complete disregard for the consequences?  Swafford describes the long drive from the west coast to a mid-west college to attend his niece's graduation.  Along for the ride on the rattling RV, his aging father, almost immobile, a bitter drunk, a master manipulator of others and a thorn on the author's psychological side.  They argue bitterly about the past.  They reconcile and then fight again.  What is revealed here is not a typical relationship full of heartbreak and emotional baggage, but a tug of war between two people who love each other greatly and cannot face the fact without trying to destroy it first.  This is a highly-accentuated psychological dilemma and Swofford puts it down on paper with clarity and candor.  I can't even begin to image how painful writing something like this must be.  To have to relive events from years ago and retell them with detail and in a manner that reaches the reader with palpable pain must have been exhausting and damaging. 

Similarly, Swofford retells/relives his relationship with women (before and after his success) among a mixture of drugs, alcohol and emotional recklessness.  The healthy aspect of all this wreck-like emotional menagerie of pain is that Swofford emerges with a clean voice at the end.  He is the writer who can point to himself and confess his shortcomings without sounding fake or unrepentant.  Critics may miss this level of sincerity and truthful writing, but those of us who know disappointment and pain (both the pain we cause and the pain others cause us) can definitely tell the difference.

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" is classic Anthony Swofford.  All that is left for Swofford to do is to translate this type of brutal writing to the past-postmodern, contemporary fiction of today.  With luck, the critics and reviewers will come to understand that Swofford's voice is full of real talent, and is one to be reckon with.

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