Book Review: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

March 8, 2016

YOUNGBLOODMatt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood was published last month by the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. Gallagher is the author of the popular and highly controversial blog-to-book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, which chronicles his time as a soldier in 2007 and 2008. Youngblood, Gallagher’s first novel, is primarily about a soldier named Jack Porter, and his time as a lieutenant as the US occupation of Iraq is slowly drawing to a close. The novel hovers around several subjects: Porter’s experiences with his platoon; the dynamic between him and his mercurial sergeant, Chambers; and Porter’s attempts to make sense of the relationship between a local sheikh’s daughter and an enigmatic soldier named Eli Rios who passed away in 2006. If this clandestine relationship was all the book were about, it would make a fairly enjoyable read, but the novel’s true strengths lie elsewhere: Youngblood not only presents a thoughtful, nuanced picture of the Iraq War, but it is also a disquieting and incredibly thoughtful meditation on doubt and moral ambiguity.

On rare occasions, some of Gallagher’s sentences (particularly at the beginnings of chapters) are at odds with the rest of his otherwise literary-conversational approach; sentences like, “The days of rage returned to Ashuriyah underneath a strawberry cream sky” can feel overwritten next to the lucidity of his prose elsewhere. The novel is not particularly short (340 pages, give or take), but Gallagher’s writing still manages to feel economical; all of his sentences have been carefully wrought. Dust jacket comparisons to Hemingway are probably a bit premature, but there are semblances in how both utilize negative space. Like in Hemingway’s work, the most piercing moments in Gallagher’s Youngblood exist between the spaces of what has been said, in what is implied. After an ill-conceived order goes horribly wrong and an Iraqi officer (and friend of Porter’s) loses his legs and a US soldier loses an eye, Porter blankly explains that after the fact, he spent the rest of the night watching movies on his laptop. A few hours after multiple Iraqi civilians are killed because they failed to stop their sedan fast enough, Porter reflects on the tragedy: “The forever glare of the dead driver had lingered, but I shook free of it, along with paranoid thoughts of the soldiers in Karbala who were electrocuted to death in a KBR shower trailer like this one. Then I shampooed my hair.” Brilliant contrasts like these are scattered throughout the book. They highlight the absurdity of daily life in the face of horror better than any longwinded reflection could. Gallagher frequently nods to the bureaucracy of war, but prefers a quiet, muted frustration as opposed to the bitter irony of somebody like Joseph Heller.

Youngblood also shines as a crosssection of the multitude of voices that encompass the military; of people from altogether different parts of the country who would otherwise likely never come into contact. There is Lieutenant Porter himself from Southern California, consistently met with “surf’s up” both by members of his platoon and by Iraqi soldiers; Dominguez and Hog, who affectionately refer to each other as “wetback” and “my favorite redneck;” Snoop, a Sudanese translator who learned English “from British missionaries and refined it with gangsta rap;” and Vretto, a gay captain who can reportedly “bench more than anyone.” Sitting in the sun, Porter and his platoon recount stories from home: “Stories of girls, stories of late nights and foggy mornings, stories exaggerated and stories seared into outright lies. The desert heat bleached everything, including the minds and memories of its occupiers. Alphabet once drank a fifth of whiskey in an hour. Dominguez lost his virginity to a friend’s aunt. Hog had cliff-dived into the Arkansas River from fifty feet up.”

Youngblood contains a wealth of information about Iraq and the subtleties of the Iraq War, but it tells us nearly as much about the altogether distinct Americas that the military is made up of. This is often endearing but it is also tense; it is clear that an unspoken divide exists between the college-educated Porter and the soldiers under his command who likely had few options but to join the military. There are also the myriad of Iraqi civilians, at the mercy of multiple parties and perpetually drawing the short end of the stick. Gallagher empathically portrays just how much Iraqi civilians have suffered during the war.

Early on in the book, Porter and a higher-up have a conversation about counterinsurgency. Porter is lectured, being told that “counterinsurgency is a complicated task . . . requires care, restraint. An appreciation for the gray. Porter responds that he is “all about the gray.” This also forms a vital part of the novel: it is, in some sense, about disenchantment, about the collapse of clear boundaries between good and evil, and about the difficulty in doing the right thing in guerrilla warfare. A strong, silent type (on the debate team in high school, no less), Alphabet explains that he joined the military in order to “believe in something,” and Porter’s older brother Will angrily asserts after a fight, “I’m an infantry officer. I’m a man with a purpose. I’m a man who knows what’s right, what’s wrong, and what you are.” After being asked by Yousef (the owner of a falafel shop with links to Al-Qaeda, who also deals in human smuggling and as a result represents the chance at a better life for many civilians; more “gray zone”) how he feels “about the concept of truth,” Porter shrugs and replies that he doesn’t “believe in truth anymore.” Seen in this light, repeated nods to postmodernity are not a rhetorical flourish or an empty reference, but are related to the book’s concern with what it means to act morally in situations of moral ambiguity. This is what makes Youngblood such a poignant read, Gallagher’s own intimate understanding of “the gray.”

Publisher: Atria Books

Publication date: February 2, 2016

by Jeremy Klemin


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