Marked for life

Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

THE past may be difficult to forget, if it is tattooed on your forearm. That is a life lesson Severin Boxx, all of 17 when his arm was inked, eventually absorbs. Raised in the 1980s as a military brat on the Yokota Air Base in Japan, only to find himself juvenilized on the other side of the Pacific Rim as an adult, Boxx is one of two protagonists in Anthony Swofford's novel "Exit A." The other is Virginia Sachiko Kindwall, a hafu (half Japanese and half American), who grew up on the same base. It is her middle name that is emblazoned on Boxx's arm.

Virginia, who accompanies him to the tattoo parlor, suggests he tell people that the Japanese part of her name means "revolt," for she is much in revolt against her father, the base's commanding officer. "Sachiko" actually means "happy child," an inappropriate descriptor for Virginia, who makes a hobby of knocking over mom-and-pop stores wearing a wig and sporting a .38-caliber pistol. Obsessed with the movie "Bonnie and Clyde," she is not a yakuza; this is organized crime only in that she reports to a petty criminal known as Silver Oda, who pays her $50 per job and keeps most of the take. Oda too is a cultural hybrid, half Japanese and half Korean. "So basically, I'm always at war with myself," he tells Severin, whom he and Virginia attempt to recruit as their partner in crime.

On the day of his tattooing, Severin does revolt, for reasons both related to his feelings for Virginia and independent of them. A football standout coached by Virginia's ramrod father, Gen. Oliver Kindwall, he is "deep in the cave of unknowing, and he knew it." In a game against the rough-and-tumble Ikebukuro team, he thinks of his own father, absent from the bleachers, winging away as always, more of a contrail than a man. After intercepting a pass and scoring a touchdown, Severin decides he's through with football; he strips off his uniform in the end zone and stands naked but for his jockstrap, under the stadium lights. "He knew that love had corrupted the spirit of his boyhood.... Severin was smart enough to consider the possibility that this love was an illusion and that what waited for him at the end of the love alley was humiliation and pain and an old faded tattoo in a language not his own, but he was not smart enough to rejoin the safety of his boyhood on the playing field in front of him." Momentarily, the crowd is silent, and then he is booed.

Well, you can't go home again, as they say, even if you felt you were never there in the first place.

It has been more than half a century since James Jones chronicled military-base life and rebellion against the machine, military and marital, in "From Here to Eternity" and other works. Swofford's update is set on the fraying edge of empire, where the military was globalized long before the world's economy and the cultural transfusion bleeds in many directions. He describes an area of the Yokota Air Base -- the adolescents call it the mall; the parents call it the square -- "meant to replicate the downtown in Anywhere, America," complete with athletic-shoe stores, Baskin-Robbins and Pizza Hut, where the younger generation "lived the suburban American dream without knowing it." Off-base is a de facto occupied zone, "the mad world of noodle shops and pawnshops, porn stores ... , strip clubs, whorehouses, gentleman's houses, family sushi joints ... , sake fountains, military surplus stores ... , pachinko parlors, barbers, butchers, fish shops, flower shops," alleys "that all led somewhere, usually down," and streets that "smelled like fish and flowers and sewer."

Readers of Swofford's "Jarhead," a striking memoir centered on his experiences as a Marine in the first gulf war, may recall his rebellion against much of what he witnessed there and also that he spent part of his youth on an air base in Japan. Tokyo women would stop the young Swofford and his mother on the street just to gaze into his blue eyes, which both confused and aroused him. One day he sneaked off the base in search of a present for his sister at a store he knew was in an alley somewhere, but all the alleys looked alike, "with noodle houses and teahouses and sake bars and fish shops and electronics stores and candy stores," and he ended up mesmerized, watching the artists of a tattoo parlor work the skin of clients into fish scales. This is not to suggest that the atmosphere of "Exit A" is transcriptive of Swofford's own youth, but it may help explain the ease with which he renders cultural mix-and-match in the novel (which takes its name from a train-station portal central to the plot).

Swofford's setting is post-Vietnam -- Virginia's and Severin's fathers are veterans of that war -- but a universal soldiering motif is built into "Exit A," with older and newer wars cleverly invoked. Kindwall's 55-year-old girlfriend, Miyoko, is a hibakusha, a Hiroshima survivor. An M.P. named Jones is both a legend and a curiosity at the base, being the grandson of the gunner on the Enola Gay when it dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. Then too, the Berlin Wall has just crumbled as the novel opens, in November 1989, and the Cold War mission that the Yokota Air Base serves (Kindwall could, within minutes, "have two dozen bombers dropping five-hundred-pound balls of flaming death and metal on Pyongyang, no questions asked") might be on the brink of changing. By the time "Exit A" concludes, it has skittered along to 2005, and references to battles in Iraq have seeped in.

The air base is the chrysalis from which the characters of "Exit A" emerge -- but, strictly speaking, the story is not there, or even then. Although Virginia and Severin both reject as adolescents what she terms the base's "brutal system," they and others are subject to life's brutalities as they age: a transient, poverty-stricken lifestyle; emasculation in marriage; adultery; abandonment; prison; the death of a parent; miscarriage ("The rule was: We do not speak of the sad red blot"); terminal illness and a postcard that reads, "I wait to die." As adults, Virginia and Severin return to the base area separately, like homing pigeons. "Home of my youth," Virginia thinks, "home of my ruin." And Severin notices that the buildings, painted an identical beige, and the black block-numbering give the place "a vaguely penal-colony feel."

Swofford has a great eye for detail and cultural kitsch, which imbues "Exit A" with a lot of incidental humor despite its weightier themes. Like Virginia, the Japanese are fixated on "Bonnie and Clyde": A film marathon brings out hundreds of look-alikes, as well as Faye Dunaway in person. Japanese punk bands perform covers of Beatles songs in the bars. Gen. Kindwall retreats to Vietnam in retirement, attended by a former enemy soldier who goes by the name of James Banh.

"What we break, we will fix?" Severin asks his old football coach late in "Exit A." He's repeating back to Kindwall one of the general's old slogans, but will any of Swofford's embattled characters ever achieve their peace? In "Jarhead," Swofford wrote that it took him years to understand "that the most complex and dangerous conflicts, the most harrowing operations, and the most deadly wars, occur in the head." On the evidence of this novel, he still thinks so. *

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