Saturday, February 13, 2016

What You Should Consider Reading Next

As I continue to research the complex issue of Sir Thomas Malory’s sources I’ve also been spelling myself with some contemporary fiction, in particular the new novel Youngblood by Matt Gallagher.  For once the manifold good reviews are accurate.  It’s an extraordinary book, even better than most of the critics are crediting.

The setting is Iraq, primarily Ashuriyah, just before the end of the American occupation.  The narrator is an army lieutenant and a platoon leader.  It is war fiction, and like the greatest works of that kind, from War and Peace to A Farewell to Arms to The Things They Carried, it is suis-generis in spite of the conventional linear structure of the narrative.  Initially, story is propelled  by a mystery, indeed that’s what it first appears to be, in spite of its surprising setting, and though Gallaher’s canvas is edged with multiple modernist and post-modernist conventions, they are properly seen  as much a part of the temporal setting as the desert and burning sun are part of the physical setting.  Gallagher has deeper, more interesting concerns:  the struggle to lead others in a context fraught with ambiguity and moral conflict, the interaction of disparate cultures and the nature of character itself.  They are some of the best and most important subjects for fiction and of course are timeless.

And he has a gift for creating memorable, engaging characters.  There are many and yet all are well differentiated and believable.  His narrator, in particular, is self-effacing, contemporary and interestingly self-conscious and perspicacious.  In that regard, he is reminiscent of Patrick Kenzie in Denis Lehane’s Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries.  Gallaher also has a fine sense of scene.  I never find myself asking why a scene exists or if it has gone on too long.  Writers with such skill are sometimes called a writer’s writer and the epithet is well deserved in this case.  Here’s a favorite paragraph which shows just how good Gallagher’s writing is:

                I wanted to agree with him.  I wanted us to absolve ourselves of blame, deflect the accountability elsewhere.  I wanted to chalk up the ruin we’d wrought to something unknowable, like providence, or chance, or bureaucracy.  But something inside implored me not to.  That’s too easy, it said.  Be stubborn.  Fight for understanding.

Boy, I wish I’d written that last sentence.  Anyone who has ever led others with good will has felt that way.

Of course, because of my immediate concerns I can’t help but find myself juxtaposing and contrasting it to Le Morte d’Arthur but also Lermentov.  Gallagher’s Jack Porter’s situation has much in common with Pechorin’s, and they face similar dramatic issues and tensions in spite of their significant differences in character, particularly their moral values.  Indeed, the two make for a fine comparison of the way alienation expresses itself in occupying forces living within an alien Islamic culture.  There’s a very interesting and enjoyable critical essay there.

However, Malory, and other concerns call.  Suffice it to say, it may well be one of the very best novels to come out of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and, given the recent competition, that is saying a lot. The final words of Patton’s  war horse of a poem come to mind,

      So as through a glass, and darkly
      The age long strife I see
      Where I fought in many guises,
      Many names, but always me.

      And I see not in my blindness
      What the objects were I wrought,
      But as God rules o'er our bickerings
      It was through His will I fought.

      So forever in the future,
      Shall I battle as of yore,
      Dying to be born a fighter,
      But to die again, once more.

I should mention that I came to Youngblood via “The Hawaii Project” ( which not only recommended the book to me one morning but pointed me to a diverse set of reviews that convinced me I needed to read it.  It really is an exceptional way to find exceptional books.  I also feel a deep sense of appreciation for Mr. Gallagher for writing such an extraordinarily good book.

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