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Book Review June 12, 2003
Bardamu in Kuwait
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4
Swofford is surrounded with people who don't like the ordinariness of their sob-stories and want to turn the volume up to eleven, just like Fowler. Swofford's brother writes a family memoir that does exactly the same thing, turning their history into the kind of garish drama that would get them some attention.

Everywhere Swofford is dragged into big, maudlin lies. In fact, that's the impression you get most strongly from the book: a decent Sacramento dirthead, a smart one, getting bounced from one lurid tale to another.

When Swofford was growing up, his divorced mother tried to convince him that his father is a monster. Later his brother forces his kin to help him invent a fake past as a star athlete. When Swofford is in Saudi Arabia waiting to go to war, his brother strikes another big, fake martial pose -- just like Fowler, and for that matter all of stateside America, did during this war, writing that he's on his way to join the war. Swofford finally gets angry: "I tell him I know the truth, that he's goddamn happy over there in [a US Army base] in Germany, drinking the beer and what have you, and that he's really goddamn stupid or even crazy if he thinks he'll prefer combat action to drinking good German beer, fucking his wife, playing patty-cake with his daughter, and going about the usual wasteful business of the garrison military."

And of course the brother never shows up at the war. Instead he dies of cancer back in the civilian world--which turns out to be more dangerous than Kuwait. Not one of Swofford's Marine friends is injured or killed in the war. Instead, Swofford's war buddy Troy dies drunk-driving on an icy road back home in a dying town abandoned by industry, full of "religious and alcoholic" imbeciles. Like Bardamu's postwar France, Swofford's postwar America is just as lethal and far more contemptible than the Front.

The longer you tag along with Swofford's stories, the more you start to respect him, if only because he has a deep love for accuracy, especially in matters of tone. One of my favorite passages is the lecture a cooler fellow Marine, a huge Hawaiian, gives Swofford:

"One day after we'd left the gym (I'd been talking to some tankers between sets), [he] told me flatly, 'Swoff, stop that socializing. You think these guys give a fuck about you? They flap their lips 'cause you ask questions. You're too nice. Stop smiling. Stop acting like a girl on her first date. This is the Fleet, motherfucker, this ain't high school. These guys will backstab you in a second."

It's good, it's a good sign, that Swofford put this story in his memoir. It suggests the importance he places in tonal accuracy. It's not till the very end, that fatal spot for all war memoirs, when he slips into maudlin cliche. Alas, Celine is not the only French author he's read. As he mentions several times, he's also reading Camus. Worse yet, it's The Stranger.

Now this is tricky, because in a way it's a mark of authenticity that he mentions the very unfashionable Camus with pride. It suggests that Swofford really does come from a nowhere military family, that he's not just another rich boy slumming for a book. A rich boy might mention other has-beens and bad writers in a war memoir -- Greene, perhaps, or Hemingway -- but not Camus, and especially not The Stranger. Cool people haven't mentioned Camus in decades.

But that kind of authenticity has a price--is a price. And the price is bathos at the end of the book. exemplified by this passage from Swofford's Epilogue:

"I am entitled to despair over the likelihood of further atrocities. Indolence and cowardice do not drive me -- despair drives me. I remade my war one word at a time, a foolish, desperate act. When I despair, I am alone, and I am often alone. In crowded rooms and walking the streets of our cities, I am alone and full of despair, and while sitting and writing, I am alone and full of despair -- the same despair that impelled me to write this book, a quiet scream from within a buried coffin. Dead, dead my scream."

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