“How do you defeat the devil in his own home?” wonders Rana, the beautiful and tragic daughter of a sheik in Matt Gallagher’s Iraq War novel Youngblood.
It would make for a great rhetorical question if not for the lives of the civilians and American military that hang in the balance. Thrown together by circumstances that can seem alternately noble, fruitless, and absurd, these two groups of people–local Iraqis and American soldiers–are forced to spend their days marking time, circling each other, hoping to stay alive so that they can — what? Well, find somewhere else to go and survive, I guess.
Kudos to Matt Gallagher for taking these two groups of people, often described by the general public in ways that make them seem bluntly, blandly at odds, and giving them the particularity and nuance that make them feel real. Gallagher, a former Army captain and author of the memoir Kaboom! (2010), knows well the variation among soldiers (by rank, region, education, personality) and Iraqi locals (by roughly the same). He uses this to his novelistic advantage, creating a web of characters whose backgrounds and motives must have been carefully plotted out. As in a great old noir novel or film, each of these characters wants something from the other, mistrusts one another, is scheming in some way, out of either aggression or self-protection. Sometimes, motives are clear; other times you can’t quite pin them down, and neither can the book’s narrator, the well-meaning, slightly muddled, youthfully self-absorbed Lieutenant Jack Porter.
The events of the novel hinge on a local mystery that Jack at first assumes to be legend and nothing more: the marriage of an American soldier to a local sheik’s daughter some years prior. The soldier, Rios, is presumed dead, having been (according to locals and to Jack’s main rival, Sgt. Chambers) driven wild by his love for Rana. Like Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, he began to “go native.” (“Some men can’t act rationally when there’s poon involved,” Chambers explains, wistfully.)
As the novel opens, Rios’s body has never been found, and Jack plays sleuth in order to help locate it. Partly, Jack wants to do “one good thing” while in Iraq; also, he’s bored out of his mind, and his little noir diversion gives him something to do while providing comic effect. (“Sing me a song and make it good,” Jack tells a source, who merely “looked confused.”)
A northern California boy whose older brother joined the Army first, and with great distinction, Jack joined up “to believe in something the way he had. To know idealism as something more than a word.” The brothers’ parents are made both horrified and proud by their sons’ military service (strange bedfellows of emotion I know well from having informed my own pacifist, northern-CA parents that my high school sweetheart-turned-husband, whom they’d known for years, was joining the military in 2004). Will, Jack’s older brother, is the typical Type-A, hard-charging firstborn, but even he had “lost that belief somewhere along the line, somehow,” whereas Jack, in a laconic, jaded youngest-child’s manner, muses that he “doubted [he’d] ever had it.”
Jack makes for a fine narrator and he certainly feels realistic–his parents’ divorce is referenced in a factual, mutedly-sad way, and surely our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the first generation of soldiers shaped overwhelmingly by divorce. You can make more or less of that as you see fit, but for me, details like that make Jack seem like any smart, liberal, and slightly adrift LT I might have come across in my eleven years as a military wife. It also makes him (and this is praise!) the least interesting character in Youngblood (with the exception of Marissa, his weepy, physically fit, book-loving girlfriend back home).
It’s the Iraqi characters themselves who truly capture my imagination. In Youngblood, they are unique, fascinating individuals, and it takes someone who knows a lot about the intricacies of local diplomacy to write them this well. Sure, you have the usual shepherds and badly-burned little girls (American soldier-writers use nothing more frequently as metaphors for their own personal horror than injured little girls, often to meaningful effect), but Gallagher imbues what could be stock characters with life that just sizzles. Even a teenage shepherd boy in a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, through the patient-but-increasingly-frustrated LT Jack’s eyes, speaks volumes about the way the soldiers and Iraqis regard one another, and how some of the deepest hurts come from the two sides feeling wronged in tiny ways, perceiving a lack of basic gratitude or politeness. The shepherd boy “frowned as we passed, even though we’d waited for him and his herd.” There he is, this boy, caught at his parochial livelihood while consuming American culture with some measure of longing or respect (we assume) — and yet staring down his occupiers who are patiently waiting for him in armor and vehicles that cost more money than this young man could ever fathom. And Jack thinks that if the kid could just smile, could have some gratitude or some freaking respect, everybody would feel better. Which they probably would.
That kid’s just a blip in the novel, but there are other Iraqis who are allowed to live extensively within its pages. There’s Haitham, the town drunk, and possibly a fanatical and plotting cleric. The Barbie Kid with his pink sweatpants and cooler. There’s the falafel man with his cataract eyes and stinky feet, toes poking out of sandals like “little gnarled knives” (BTW, would you want your falafel made by a man with such reeking feet?!), possibly far more dangerous than he seems. There’s Snoop, and oh, you will adore Snoop!, LT Jack’s funny, streetwise, American-rap-loving Arabic interpreter.
And then there’s Fat Mukhtar, a young village leader who serves, like most of the Iraqis in the book, as both assistant and rival to the Americans. In perhaps my favorite scene, Jack, overwhelmed by pressure and frustration, challenges Fat Mukhtar to a game of “Big Buck Hunter” in the mukhtar’s video-game-and-mini-fridge-filled man cave, while the senior officers and village elders are meeting. The absurdity, the details, are hilariously wrought: “The war didn’t matter any more. Wiping the grin off the mukhtar’s fat face did.” And my favorite visual image:
Fat Mukhtar’s face quivered with anger, and he started to walk into me, belly first, until I raised a peace sign and pointed to the screen. He rearranged the green shotgun under his armpit in a stream of Arabic vulgarities. As we waited for the sixth round, blocky letters of GET READY formed on the screen. We crouched in the wait, his feet parallel like he was at the O.K. Corral, mine staggered and clenched as I’d been taught in training.
I was relieved and impressed to find that the Iraqi women in Youngblood are equally well-drawn. Rana, the beautiful widow, is gentle-natured despite the loss and confinement she has endured. She isn’t conniving like some of the other Iraqis, but she’s not guileless either. Her boredom is without coarseness; it has managed to tamp her down, but not dull her. Her sense of humor and restraint feel pitch-perfect.
Her opposite on the spectrum may be Alia, the short, chubby cleaning lady and hooker for hire, whose constant presence –mopping, sweeping, watching LT Jack through doorways and windows–unnerves him. If this were Game of Thrones she’d be The Spider; she knows more than anyone else. (I laughed when Alia catches Jack watching her watch him, as if “her spider-sense had tingled”). Alia’s powers of observation make her a possibly-sinister counterpart to Gallagher-the-novelist himself, and it becomes clear that Alia can spin a pretty good yarn. With her penchant for detailed storytelling, heck, I’d read Alia’s novel any day.
As a war novel, Youngblood is refreshing. Sure, it tackles the sense of ennui and frustration that all books about modern American soldiers must address, but it’s also far more than just Jack Porter drinking lukewarm Rip-It and having headaches. When Michiko Katukani describes the novel as “urgent,” I agree: there’s an urgency within Youngblood‘s pages, although for me, that urgency is not so much about the Rios and Rana mystery or even concern for Jack Porter, but rather a desire to uncover the fascinating power balance in the “hellish” village of Ashuriya, Iraq, where people have endured for centuries, where they are sometime victims of circumstance but also world-wise and smart, where any upper hand must be exploited no matter how small; where power and personal advantage are everything, and where yet another occupation is, like all those that have come before, something that will pass.
Gallagher, Matt. Youngblood (Atria Books, 2016).
Buy Youngblood here
Read Michiko Katukani’s review in the New York Times, an interview with Matt Gallagher in The Rumpus, and a review of Youngblood by Peter Molin on Time Now.