Happy birthday, Swoff!

Jake Gyllenhaal as Swoff, about to cross the berm
No, not that one.

This one.

Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford
Anthony Swofford, former Marine scout/sniper and author of the bestselling Jarhead, was born on August 12, 1970 in Fairfield, California.

Like many of Jake's fans, I had not read Anthony Swofford's intensely personal Gulf War chronicle before Sam Mendes brought it to the screen. In general, I have always had a distaste for the type of guy (or girl) who wants to join the military, and in particular the Marines; Swofford knows I'm not alone, and acknowledges that he basically hid from his peers his unpopular aspiration in order to avoid ridicule. He was right. Being of the same generation, I am like those kids he went to school with who would not have understood. But perceptions can change.

Jake as Swoff, dreaming of pink mistAfter being completely fascinated and horrified by the movie, I knew I would eventually read Jarhead. It took me a while to get around to it; even after I purchased it the book sat on my bedroom floor for a month while I finished reading other recommendations. Once I finally opened it, I couldn't put it down.

In fact, after reading the last sentence, I flipped back to the beginning and immediately started again, reluctant to leave the perversely beautiful brutality of Swofford's prose and his ordeal. I have never done that before with any book. It would be glib to say that I now understand his position, but my view of low-level military personnel and those who wish to be a part of that system will never be the same. And while my understanding of the man both then and now is based upon what bits he has chosen to feed me from the dark pantry of his psyche, I won't deny feeling a profound empathy and connection with Swofford, from page one.

Jake's Swoff hits the deck under friendly fireHis style, a lyrical but concise delivery that makes all the more disarming his unrelenting honesty, has made me an instant fan. I don't know if that's because it reminds me of my writing--and I seem to be all about finding ways to love myself through others, since I can't do it directly--but reading Swofford feels like reading my own journal. Of course I have not lived anything remotely as compelling or formative as his experience, but as I follow him, I imagine myself sharing his reactions, his interpretations, nearly every opinion and emotion expressed, as if he were a version of myself in some other life.

When I first encountered Swoff, via Jake, I thought he was an immature, self-centered asshole. It turns out that 37-year-old Swofford agrees with me about 20-year-old Swoff, proof that Jake's performance was frighteningly accurate. Many viewings later, I love and feel sympathy for Jake's Swoff, as I now do the man himself. (That doesn't mean I won't exploit this opportunity to show you BareAssed!Jake. Life is too short.)

I'm also bemused by a few parallels between Jake and Anthony Swofford.

Jake Gyllenhaal with Anthony SwoffordWe all heard about how Jake chipped his tooth during shooting of the scene where Swoff takes his vengeance on Brian Geraghty's Fergus, and subsequently let himself get a bit too abusive in further takes, resulting in the two not speaking for days on the set. What I have never seen or heard anyone else mention is that Swofford also chipped his tooth on a gun, while threatening not his platoon mate but himself. This strange confluence of events can't have escaped someone like Jake, who has professed a belief in "the energy between people." Then there's one of Swofford's STA buddies who was named Atticus, either by his parents or Swofford for the sake of anonymity. Granted, I don't get out much, but that's the only Atticus I've ever encountered, outside of Harper Lee's novel and Jake's beloved German Shepherd (the latter named after the character in the former).

Anthony Swofford, from the jacket of Exit AAnthony Swofford loves to cook, specifically citing Mario Batali as a favorite source of recipes. And I can't discount the mesmerizing quality of Swofford's blue eyes; while not on the level of Jake's beauty (and no one is), Swoff does indeed appeal to me. The last time Tony Swofford was with me in the shower, he wasn't entirely Jake's Swoff.

Being impressed as I was with Jarhead, I wanted to try Swofford's fiction novel, Exit A, so Friday while I ran all over town on errands, I stopped in to the local Border's. Their online self-service station did not reveal stock status, only a probable location of "Literature: Fiction." It took me five minutes to establish that "Literature: Fiction" was bereft of Swofford, because their concept of alphabetization at this Border's apparently involves some algorithm for wrapping around multiple freestanding shelves that puts T before S. On my way out I decided to browse the 50% Off bins that I had passed as I entered, and right there in the center of the box in front of me was a copy of Exit A--deeply discounted. So deeply that I don't feel right saying how little I paid for it. Swofford probably doesn't care what I paid for his book, but if it were my book, I don't think I'd exactly be thrilled to learn that it could be had brand new for less than most items at their in-store café.

Jake Gyllenhaal is too gorgeous for words at the NY Jarhead premiereI haven't begun reading it yet. I am afraid. I'm afraid because while Anthony Swofford is a hundred times more well-read than I, has a superior vocabulary, and has demonstrated admirably that he can write, the hardest part of writing isn't the prose for someone like me; it's the story. I've read articles and correspondence by Swofford, and his mastery of language is evident. But I've not read any of his fiction before. What if the magic of Swofford's prose fails to carry a mediocre tale that does not have the built-in gravity of truth? Clearly, I'm projecting my own inadequacies upon a writer whom I do not know. That's what I do best. I know that even if Exit A sucks, it does not diminish the savage beauty of Jarhead. Still, I will feel deflated, as if the facile words and faltering story really were my own.

Fortunately for us, Swofford is not me: he has had the courage to pursue his writing, has successfully been published. He claims he is driven by a constant fear of failure, something that for me has had the opposite effect. Maybe if my failure meant a humiliating death, it would be more of a motivator. Or maybe it's success that I really fear.

Happy birthday, Swoff. Have a few drinks on me.

Jake's Swoff wonders if Staff Sergeant Sykes knows how utterly insane he isFurther reading:

Chat transcripts
Washington Post
USA Today

Sydney Morning Herald
Das Magazin
Combustible Celluloid
Mother Jones
The Stranger
The Portland Mercury
Jake as Swoff trains his beautiful eye on the enemy

Jarhead L.A. Premiere
LX.TV with SuChin Pak
Tribeca Film Festival

By Anthony Swofford
"Coming Home: Seven Families Lay Their Fallen Soldiers to Rest. A Photo Essay" (Mother Jones)

Simon & Schuster

Photos: NY Times News Service, Dan Winters, IHJ.


ncwoman said...

Brilliant essay, my friend! I particularly like the comparisons of the similarities between Jake and Anthony Swofford. A tad eerie...

So you will let me know how Exit A is? And I think I'm going to re-read Jarhead. I think I was in too big a hurry and too busy mentally comparing the book to the film the first time around.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Cherita said...

Glad you liked it. You definitely must read Jarhead again. Don't get me wrong, I think the film was incredible, severely underrated and overlooked--but until I read Swofford's words, I didn't understand why Jake felt Swoff was the character most like himself. It has all fallen into place.

I've eased into Exit A, and I promise I will let you know what I think. It's too early for me to comment yet, except to say I haven't thrown it away in disgust, which is a good sign.

Marina said...

Cherita, I'm fast becoming a fan of the real Swoff too, as well as the film Swoff. I read Jarhead recently, and really liked his writing style; you are right, it is lyrical and I found it to be full of emotion. I didn't realize he had written a work of fiction, I'll have to read it. Happy Belated Birthday to Anthony Swofford! :)

Cherita said...

Good to hear from you, Marina! I'm not yet finished with Exit A, but so far I can say it definitely isn't the abject failure I feared for him it would be. More than that, I will reserve until I've read to the end. But by all means, don't wait for my opinion--go get it!

I have been unable to find further information on what Swoff might be working on now. I suppose I could be nonchalant and see if someone at Scribner will talk to me....