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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006 3:19 pm
Jarheads and Junkies
Posted by: Keir Graff

I stayed up far too late last night reading Jarhead. I think part of the reason I’m so absorbed in it is that I’m not reviewing it. When I’m reviewing a book, I rarely surrender entirely to the writing – there’s always a part of me that stands back, taking notes and thinking about how I’ll frame the review.

Also, because I don’t read books that I’m not reviewing very often, it kind of feels like I’m getting away with something. I’ve written about this before – only three-and-a-half months and I’m already repeating myself – but, if you love reading, becoming a book reviewer definitely falls under the category of Be Careful What You Wish For. Maybe you’re just a person who likes to read. But anyway, it’s too late to save me, so save yourselves!

As Gil Taylor wrote in his review of Jarhead, sometimes Swofford’s prose is a little over the top. First-time writers, especially those without a background in writing, tend to overwrite. But his portrait of Marine life (soldier life, not sea life) is vivid and compelling. You can see him wrestling to get it all down, just as he wrestles with his own intensely conflicted feelings toward warmongers and peaceniks alike.

And the hard partying and hijinks jibe with what I’ve heard from one of my best friends, a captain in the Army reserve. One scene reminded me of one of my early days in Chicago, when I was living in the North Side neighborhood of Edgewater. My commute involved riding a bus north to Rogers Park, where I rode a Metra train north to the suburb of Highland Park, where I managed a Kinko’s. Yes, it was every bit as exciting as it sounds.

It was a hot morning and my white starched shirt was already wilting as the bus crawled north on Clark Street. As we passed Jarheads, a seedy-looking bar, I saw Marines standing outside on the sidewalk, drinking rowdily. It looked like they were standing out there because there wasn’t enough room in the bar. It also looked like they were still going, not just starting. To me, on my way to spend my day being berated by the citizens of an affluent suburb, it seemed as if the Marines were playing life by an entirely different set of rules.

It also made me think of how we have so many populations in our country with intensely different experiences. And those with the most different experiences – soldiers, prison guards, prisoners, Alaskan king crab fishermen – are often all but invisible to us. My nonfiction tastes have always trended toward these alternative/hidden/forbidden/secret societies. In high school I loved to read about rock stars (Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods) and drug addicts (William S. Burroughs’ Junky), and in college I loved to read about hobos (Jack Black’s You Can’t Win), and after college I read about homeless people (Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth and Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People), and lately I’ve been interested in mountain climbers (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air) – who are set apart from us by obsession, specialization, and, obviously, the fact that they spend lots of time high up in the mountains. And I’ve always loved stories about gamblers and pool hustlers (Robert Byrne’s McGoorty).

I’m not equating soldiers with drug addicts, of course. But for those of us with no direct experience of either world, the initiations, rituals, and lifestyles are equally mysterious.



One Response to “Jarheads and Junkies”
  1. Joel Reese Says:

    I thought “Into Thin Air” was good, but I enjoyed “Into the Wild” a little more. I think many people know others like the guy Krakauer profiled-people who just can’t quite seem to adjust to society. Some stay on the fringe, barely hanging on, while some bail completely. I thought Krakauer’s own experience trying to strike out on his own was fascinating-I seem to remember him walking across a massive Alaskan (?) ice field, and realizing that if he fell into a crevasse, he was undoubtedly dead and no one would ever find him. A helluva anecdote, and a pretty apt metaphor, too.

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