Exit A by Anthony Swofford

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Anthony Swofford is a debut novelist who arrives with literary credentials already established. This 36-year-old former US Marine famously returned from the deserts of the first Gulf War to write Jarhead, a blistering memoir of the conflict that was lavishly praised by critics and, in 2003, adapted for screen by Sam Mendes. With Exit A we are still among soldiers, at a US airforce base on the outskirts of Tokyo. But, this time, Swofford is telling a love story.

Devotees of Jarhead will soon realise, though, that Exit A lacks that book's wonderful truthfulness; this novel is the work of a writer not yet on terms with the strange craft of telling truth via artifice. It is 1989, and 17-year-old Severin, son of an airforce Colonel, is becoming disillusioned by his football-star image and his distant father. Severin wins the attention of Virginia, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of the base leader, General Kindwall. All this drifts somewhat inconsequentially until Virginia - mixed up in petty gang crime and now the unwitting protagonist in a kidnapping - goes missing, and the General dispatches Severin to find her.

Virginia seems a clichéd wild-child, buoyed up by amateur psychology: "Of course my father loves me," she explains, "but he's also afflicted by me." Swofford's terse, declamatory sentences are too often either overdone - aeroplanes are, "jet fuelled, mind-blowing birds of human prey" - or, when trained on Severin, strangely lifeless; when Virginia seduces Severin: "his heart rate climbed, his mouth watered." That clunking sentence is symptomatic of Swofford's inability to pay Severin's experience the kind of close, deft attention he did his own in Jarhead.

Exit A never shakes itself free from the lifelessness that results. In Part II we fast-forward a decade; Virginia remains in Japan, alienated from her father. Severin is married to a rising academic in San Francisco. His sleepy existence is disturbed by an unexpected letter: will he traverse the globe to find Virginia, so the cancer-ridden General Kindwall can reconcile with her before his death?

It's a premise full of elegiac potential, but again Swofford fails to find much emotional truth. When Severin becomes despondent with the search, we learn: "on the train back to Shibuya, Severin considered giving up the search." Moreover, a conclusion that could have been moving descends into schmaltz.

Yet on occasions, here, we glimpse what Swofford was aiming at. In his depiction of the aged General, "his head still like an axe", there is a moving sense of the way life seems to accelerate too quickly away from us, leaving only our many, small failures. In the portrait of his marriage in San Francisco, before his search for Virginia, Severin is brought briefly to life via his disgust for the loss of athletic prowess, his disappointment that "all he did with his PhD in French history was mow the university lawn."

These passages hint at the truths Swofford can tell. But they are too few in Exit A. David Mattin