I like to listen to audiobooks in my car. A few years ago I made the decision that listening to the news was just too much like drinking hemlock, day in and day out. I couldn’t handle the constant negativity, the snippets of bullshit that are designed to confirm the prejudices of the listener, and the sonorous voices of the politically-correct announcers.
NPR was the worst. I just didn’t care what some feminist poet in Uganda had to teach me about life’s lessons.
Enough was enough.
Audiobooks are a good compromise. I could get them from the library for nothing, and I could generally learn something from every book. I usually stayed with history or biography, but every now and then I’d try something new, like a fiction book or a memoir.
It’s good to mix things up. The mind, like a muscle, needs to be shocked out of its routine regularly.
I somehow stumbled on Anthony Swofford’s Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir. I had not heard of Swofford before, but after reading the back of the CD box in the library I decided to listen to his book. He wrote a memoir of his experiences in the first Gulf War in 1990-1991 called Jarhead, which was later made into a movie. He had been a scout-sniper in a STA platoon (an acronym meaning surveillance and target acquisition).
I have neither read Jarhead, nor seen the movie. But I felt like I had at least something in common with the author, both of us having had spent time in the same military service in the early 1990s. When men have drunk from the same doctrinal founts, they can recognize a kindred quality in the choice of diction, phrases, and attitudes.
I can hear you, Tony. I can hear you.
His experiences were not mine, but I recognize a fellow traveler. And it is my obligation to share my food and drink with him, and lend him an ear.
Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails deals with the effects of grief and repressed rage. It explores the same psychological ground as the Nicolas Winding Refn film Fear X. Swofford relates, without sparing us any of the painful personal details, how he dealt with the death of his beloved older brother; how he dealt with the collapse of his first marriage; and how he dealt with the ruin of his father’s health, with whom he had a complex and stormy relationship.
These things, happening in the wake of the success of his first book, nearly consumed him.
Everything is resolved, and nothing is resolved. And this is how it is, in real life.
Most of all, Swofford tells us how these personal crises nearly caused his own self-destruction. We are treated to glimpses of a soul’s dark night: the deliberate courting of death by reckless behavior, the indulgence in drugs and sex, and the self-loathing that comes from unresolved childhood traumas.
I was fully prepared to hate this book, after getting through the first quarter of it. I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps it was too much reality, and too much pain.
But then the clouds lifted, for some reason, and I put myself in the author’s hands, and let myself get carried along with the stream of his deadpan prose. I surrendered to Swofford’s grief, and found satisfaction in this surrender.
This is a great book. It is an honest, moving, and at times, frustrating expiation of repressed rage and its effects.
In ancient times, there was a rhetorical style of writing called a “consolation.” The Latin word is consolatio. When a loved one died, or something terrible happened, a writer might compose a “consolation” essay to the bereaved. So Seneca wrote the consolation essays De Consolatione ad Marciam, De Consolatione ad Polybium, and De Consolatione ad Helviam. Sometimes I think the writers of the consolations benefited more from them than did the recipients.
But Swofford’s book is not a consolation. Not really. Not unless he is writing it to himself, for himself.
This book is more of a funeral dirge. It is a song of lamentation. Think of the Lay Of The Last Survivor from Beowulf. It is a passionate cri de coeur from a man who is finally able to come to terms with his own traumas, and who has succeeded in beating them back away from the clearing of sanity that he has carved out of the forest of his own psyche. That dark forest, choked with brambles.
And to let them go.
I release you, traumas. I release you. Because I have mastered you. This is Swofford’s message to us. It is a profound message, an insight gained through the most ghastly suffering.
And it is like being reborn. And being born is never a pretty sight. But there is no greater imperative: to be reborn. To be recreated, in our own image, not in someone else’s image.
There is no greater necessity.
There is a certain breaking down, a certain self-immolation, that has to occur, before the new shape can take form. And begin anew.
Let us self-immolate, when we need to. And let us be reborn.
Read More: The Consolation Of The Natural World