A couple days ago I finished Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood.
Even now I sit before the screen and wonder how to speak what I heard spoken.
In her January 2016 review of the book, the New York Times‘chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, wrote :
On one level, the novel is a parable — with overtones of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” — about the United States and Iraq and the still unfurling consequences of the war. On another, it’s a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand, and how we tell ourselves stories to reckon with the past — or, perhaps, to live with painful memories that are difficult, if not impossible, to assuage.
I agree wholeheartedly. Yet, somehow, her sentences are so, what, normal. I admire her capacity for linguistic ease—elegance, even—after having come to the novel’s end.
I am finding myself not so fluent.
The key phrase for me in the above is:
a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand
Well, true enough. So would be a story about my watching my maternal grandmother make egg noodles from scratch. Shoot, I can even add the “painful memories”part, for the heck of it. Grandma could often be on the difficult side, after all.
Indeed, Mr. Gallagher tells a story—not a war story particularly, as you’ll find no climactic battle between the forces of Light and Dark at book’s end. No, as Ms. Kakutani notes, his story is part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part tragic romance. It has a protagonist, Lieutenant Jack Porter, the California ROTC grad who had once protested the War until some mouthy Leftie in the car made one too many aspersions on his older brother, the Army officer with the Silver Star. It has an antagonist (well, of sorts), Staff Sergeant David Chambers, the hardened veteran of multiple tours, the NCO with the shady past and the five skulls tattooed on his forearm. There’s the requisite sidekick, Qasim, AKA Snoop, the Sudanese interpreter. There are the love interests, for both our hero and his nemesis: Rana, Marissa, Sergeant Griffin.
All is written well. I left the novel feeling that all three genres had been adequately narrated. I left the story and its characters saddened, but I understood why what was, had to be.
Yet because of Youngblood, I may never hear many combat veterans’ stories the same again.
Most days, combat veterans only allude to me of War’s tragedies, rather than describe them. Many days, in fact, some combat vets do not even allude. They have found their peace. They have satisfied their need-enough for understanding. War does not visit them regularly.
Such veterans tell stories, just as Ms. Kakutani writes criticism: fluently.
Others struggle more with their storytelling, but they do their best to be fluent-enough with me. They acknowledge that War still visits them, during the day, the night, both sometimes. They assure me, though, that they keep moving, keep trying to write a life story that works. They work every day to do just that.
Combat veterans like, for example, Jack Porter.
At story’s end, Mr. Gallagher has Jack narrate a scene reminiscent of the end of (at least the movie version of) Doctor Zhivago, where Omar Sharif’s Zhivago desperately runs after a woman who might have been Julie Christie’s Lara, never to reach her (although, fortunately for now-veteran Jack, he doesn’t keel over with a massive coronary, as did his Russian counterpart). The scene in Youngblood, like the scene in Pasternak, works well as tragic romance. Jack tells it fluently.
I imagine Jack sitting in front of me, speaking to me the novel’s final words: “But there was nothing there, just the faint echo of my own steps.” I imagine how I would let those words sit between us, how I could possibly then hear him say “And that’s what happened, Doc,” I imagine saying, “Thanks, Jack. That makes so much sense.”
Yet I also imagine that were Jack to walk out of my office at that point, I would not be hearing balalaika music strumming “Somewhere My Love,” even if it were played with a Middle Eastern tonal scheme.
For Mr. Gallagher gave me a Jack Porter who not only roamed streets in search of a past that might became a future. He gave me a Jack Porter who had a past that, I strongly suspect, would not, as Faulkner once quipped, reliably remain past.
How could I tell? Because it can’t stay past for me. Even now, I remember.
I, unlike Jack, unlike Mr. Gallagher himself, have never known how War can upset a good story. Mr. Gallagher did, however, reveal to me hints of the experiences that can defy fluency.
Of the scenes that hijack otherwise linear narratives, rip them apart, then taunt all the characters within the scene (and without) to go ahead and just try to get back to a semblance of a coherent tale.
You do that, pal. Give ‘er a whirl.
You know, after the mosques that blow up under your feet. After the American soldiers with the funny names who long to make a difference in a world in which snipers take aim at them. After the Iraqis who find their intestines hanging from a tree. After the girls who prove that it really isn’t that hard to serve falafel when you don’t have a nose left to smell it.
Yes, let’s get back to our story.
I strongly urge all to read Youngblood. I strongly urge all to ponder a tale of endurance, secrets, and love.
Nonetheless, I warn you: you may not feel very fluent afterwards.
But then, neither, I suspect, does Jack Porter after such a tale. Neither, I know, do many, many others after their tales.
Yet if men and women like Jack could sense that, just perhaps, we lucky ones might be willing to imagine a sliver of War’s senselessness in the midst of such tales, they might be then willing to hope that, indeed, their own stories of senselessness might, just perhaps, one day make a sliver of sense.