At one point in former Marine sniper and “Jarhead” author Anthony Swofford’s memoir “Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails,” during one of the several RV trips Swofford takes with his father in an attempt to repair their fractured relationship, his father tells him, “Look in the mirror. Look at your nose and your chin. Your eyes. Look at your hairline. You are Swofford. You got Swofford blood, boy. You can’t change that.” And that, more than anything, sums up Swofford’s struggle.
Swofford blood, for Anthony, means an endless appetite for women. For instance, he once flies two women to Tokyo, puts them up at the same hotel, and has sex with them, and a third woman a few metro stops away, without any of them finding out about the others. “I thought I’d created a new language of lust, but really I spoke artifice and despair.”
He escaped into drinking and drugs as well.
“Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails” picks up in the aftermath of the wildly successful “Jarhead,’’ Swofford’s memoir of the Gulf War. Here Swafford chronicles his submersion into a haze of money, casual sex, and drugs that followed his publication of a bestseller, all set against the backdrop of his older brother’s cancer death and his tortured family history.
The self-destruction and tragedy endured by Swofford manifest themselves in myriad ways, and the book is laid out in an intentionally disjointed manner, mostly lacking a clear start-to-finish narrative in favor of essaylike reminiscences of various lengths. But almost everything goes back to Swofford’s father, who was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive when Swofford was a child and who doesn’t exhibit nearly enough contrition in Swofford’s eyes.
When Swofford cheats, he thinks of how his father cheated. When he does drugs or considers suicide, he connects it to his self-hatred and that, in turn, to his withholding father. When thinking about his brother, Jeff, who died horrifically from cancer, Swofford can’t get over the fact that his father didn’t make it to the funeral (his excuse being that he was too devastated). It’s an old story, this father-son dynamic, but well told here.
Swofford’s pain over his brother is palpable. In one remarkable sequence, Jeff, close to death, tells Swofford that he desperately misses sex. A few hours later, Swofford brings a girl back to his brother’s room and has sex with her on the floor. It’s unclear whether Jeff, gone from morphine, can understand what’s going on.
One chapter is devoted to dissecting a nine-page letter Swofford’s father sent him in 2006. Swofford rebuts it painstakingly, meticulously, arguing over an endless number of perceived slights and alleged hurts. It’s hard to read and disrupts the flow of the book a bit. But that’s sort of the point: Swofford is showing us the endlessly circular emotional fistfight that is a dysfunctional parent-child relationship, the cascade of recriminations that washes over the years and pools into fetid ponds.
By dint of its jumpy nature, “Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails” doesn’t go into enough depth in explaining how Swofford righted his life. But his writing is too good and engaging for that to prevent the book from being a worthy entry in the pantheon of dysfunctional-family memoirs.Jesse Singal, a frequent contributor to the Globe, can be reached at email@example.com.