By Kelly Crigger
Book Review – Youngblood by Matt Gallagher
Matt Gallagher first caught my attention with a line from his first book, Kaboom, Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. While driving through Baghdad he described the Iraqis as “too tired to hope, but too human not to.” That line stuck with me because it’s a singular truth of the human condition and it instantly made Gallagher a favorite author. Anyone who can put into words something you knew to be true, but didn’t realize until he said it, is a keeper.
When I heard Gallagher (a combat veteran with the 25th ID) was releasing his first novel, I was a bit nervous for the guy. I’ve written seven books, all non-fiction because, to be perfectly honest, fiction is a fickle bitch and even the most seasoned novelists fail at it. Lucky for me, Matt Gallagher proved me to be a good judge of character. Youngblood is a fantastic read that grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. The very first words of the prologue set up a profound and compelling story that doesn’t disappoint:
“It’s strange, trying to remember now. Not the war, thought that’s all tangled up too. I mean the other parts. The way sand pebbles nipped at our faces in the wind. How the mothers glared when we raided houses looking for their sons. The smell of farm animal waste and car exhaust blending together during patrols through town, rambling, aimless hours lost to the desert. How falafel bits got stuck between my teeth so much I started bringing floss on missions, along with extra ammo and water. The sun, the goddamn heat. The days I couldn’t sleep and the nights I wouldn’t. How the power of being in charge got to me, how it got to all the officers and sergeants, giant, armed soldiers at our backs ready to carry out foreign policy through sheer fucking force. How sometimes, many times, we were gentle. That feeling of something – relief? gratitude? exhaustion? – when a patrol returned to the outpost and, for another day, we’d be able to ask ourselves just what the hell we were doing.”
Youngblood is the story of Army Lieutenant Jack Porter, a precocious twenty-something struggling with the immense burden of combat leadership while trying to balance an overly aggressive and undermining platoon sergeant, a bloody middle-eastern cultural conflict as the Americans withdraw from Iraq and his tiny outpost, and an ever-deepening mystery. It’s the story of a young man imbued with more responsibility than he’s ever had who tries to do the right thing while surrounded by precious few that share his vision.
Porter’s struggle is not just an emotional journey, but a ‘whoddunnit’ mystery that he becomes obsessed with solving. He suspects his platoon sergeant of carrying out an illegal killing during a previous deployment to the same town they now occupy (Ashuriyah) and pursues the truth at all costs without the consent of his chain of command. As with any well-layered story, Porter pulls the string and the sweater unravels.
One of the hardest parts of writing a memorable novel is developing memorable characters, but Gallagher has no problem intertwining warfighters, interpreters, Iraqis, and a variety of interlopers in a way that makes each of them personal. Dominguez, Hog, Fat Mukhtar, Doc Cork, Snoop the Terp, and of course, Sergeant Chambers are all unique and unforgettable. Gallagher described one soldier in a way that makes the reader instantly understand who he is underneath the camouflage:
“He had an unmolded roundness about him, the type of Rust Belt clay that had been switching out high school football jerseys for the uniform of a soldier for generations.”
A main strength of Youngblood is that it recognizes and pays homage to the camaraderie of combat, but not in an arrogant way like so many other “we were there and you weren’t!” books. Youngblood captures the fragile relationships between officers and enlisted, Americans and Arabs, and the unmistakable brotherhood of war, but doesn’t forget its humility and humanity at the same time. Gallagher has no issue with exploring the tender side of the warfighter and tackles head-on the pain of missing loved ones back home while living under the crushing weight of daily combat. One day Lieutenant Porter can’t shake the desert and lets himself get distracted by memories of his girlfriend…
“I thought of how she’d read on her front porch for entire summer afternoons, gossip mags, thick historical biographies, old newspapers, anything she could find, legs tucked under her into cushions, eyes slapping across the pages like sneakers on pavement. She’d look up every forty minutes or so, just to make sure I was still there, and wink in mock seduction. I loved her most in those hours, before the suburban sun became suburban stars, when our plans became communal property with friends who didn’t matter the ways we mattered. When we were all our own.”
Take that Nicholas Sparks!
Supporting Youngblood throughout are vivid descriptions that heighten the experience of the story. You feel the heat of the Persian desert, see the sweaty, dusty, bloody uniforms, and smell the unmistakable man ass of the barracks. But more importantly you feel the struggles of each character, not just the protagonist. Too many books focus on the emotional tribulations of the main character and waste the opportunity to take the story to another level by intertwining the idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters. Youngblood makes everyone matter because Gallagher recognizes that it’s not just the main character who has to find himself when he’s too tired to hope. We all do.