In Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood, Lieutenant Jack Porter grapples with right and wrong, wrestling his conscience against the complicated realities of a mentally taxing tour in Iraq. When the brash Sergeant Daniel Chambers and the intoxicating Rana, daughter of an Iraqi sheik, arrive on the scene, bringing mysterious old ghosts with them, Porter finds himself tested beyond familiar battlegrounds. We spoke with Gallagher about his complex and transporting new novel.
Throughout the book, Lieutenant Porter struggles with moral truths–about his troops’ missions, the future of Iraq and Sergeant Chambers, a foil to Porter’s conscience–and is mostly alone in these ruminations. How did you approach portraying Porter’s isolation?
Porter functions as the readers’ entryway into this world, into this story, so it was important to isolate him as much as possible from that world. He’s telling us this narrative because “we” are all that he has, in a way. He’s commiserating with, and into, the ether. So placing him in a leadership position – in this case a platoon leader – was the first step of isolating him, because leadership is inherently lonely. Then, slowly, surely, he gets untethered from nearly every other part of his life – home, family, the army, his past, what he sees as his purpose. I wanted him to be as vulnerable and secluded as possible when he finally meets Rana, the Iraqi sheik’s daughter. He thinks he has nothing left when this myth from the past literally walks up to him and offers him water. In that moment of inaction and deliberation, everything that follows is set into place. That was the plan, at least!
You quote a Yeats poem that seems to reverberate across the novel: “He, too, has been changed in his turn, All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Does this resonate for Porter?
Yes, that’s a line from the poem “Easter, 1916” – a masterwork from one of our literary titans. I’m not sure how much that line resonates with Porter, at least not in the moment he receives those lines in a letter from home. But part of Porter’s character is how he chews things and events and issues over – he’s slow to burn and can’t compartmentalize the events of the war he’s witnessing and participating in. But they stick with him, and in him, too. He’s a seeker at heart, and much of the novel is about that seeking (while what he’s seeking does change, don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that) and a hope for clarity, if not truth.
By the time we get to the end of the novel, the end of Jack’s journey in Iraq at least, yes, I believe he has a better appreciation for Yeats’ “terrible beauty.” Don’t we all, after we’ve lived enough?
In the canon of war literature, books tend to focus on the narrative of transitioning home. What do you feel is important to convey in the narrative of being at war?
One of the things I wanted to do was focus the story of Youngblood in the moment(s) of Iraq, rather than reflecting back on it. Memory can distort and warp, and the prologue sets up the fact that the entire story that follows is warped and distorted. Memory does that in everyday life, of course, and it most certainly does it with something as sensually overloading as war.
Outside the prologue and epilogue – a total of maybe five pages in a 300 plus page novel – the entire narrative is set in Iraq. There are a few flashbacks chapters, sure, that go back to Jack’s life in the States, but those are being remembered from his vantage point in Iraq, which are in turn being remembered from his vantage point in the prologue and epilogue. That probably sounds confusing, but it makes sense on the page! Anyhow, it’s a purposeful kaleidoscopic structure meant to replicate that distortion of memory I mentioned earlier. It’s often the most important parts of our lives that we remember the least precisely, despite remembering those moments so acutely. And that’s the case for many of the prominent characters in Youngblood, from Jack Porter to Sergeant Chambers to Rana.
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