Today, we are pleased to review Matt Gallagher’s first novel Youngblood, which was released last month. Reviewer Jeremy Klemin writes: “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.” You don’t want to miss this one.
Matt 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.