March 24, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Matt Gallagher's debut novel Youngblood is one of the year's most important books, a poignant and powerful look at the Iraqi war.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"One one level, the novel is a parable -- with overtones of Graham Greene's The Quiet American...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...Mr. Gallagher has a keen reportorial eye, a distinctive voice and an instinctive sympathy for the people he is writing about, and he uses those gifts here to immerse us in his characters's lives...With Youngblood, he has written an urgent and deeply moving novel."
When I set out to create what would become Youngblood, it felt imperative to write beyond the setting of the Iraq war. Sure, a story set in the midst of the American military withdrawal from the Middle East was going to inevitably touch upon the battles and the destruction. But the best books about war use the subject as backdrop, focusing less on the armed violence itself, and more on the consequences and aftermath of that armed violence. More than anything, those books are about hope, and loss, and love, and survival. The best books about war aren’t about war at all, I found – they’re about human beings trying to endure.
Here are six songs that helped me remember that. Story first, story always.
“First Entrance to the Desert/Night and Stars” score – Maurice Jarre, from Lawrence of Arabia
T.E. Lawrence – the man and the myth, not to mention his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the film about his life – looms over the entirety of Youngblood, and many of the characters (Iraqi and American) desperate to bring something resembling peace and stability to their little corner of Iraq. During my own time in the Army, when counterinsurgency was all the rage, Lawrence’s writings and experiences in the Middle East were brought up so often that it became a well-worn joke. And yet … jokes don’t write like this. Only people and minds worth admiring do:
We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves any good or evil; yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took from us our victory, and remade it in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace. When we are their age no doubt we shall serve our children so.
“Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” – Snoop Dogg
Who the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) are in Youngblood is a matter of perspective – some readers identify with the seeking but stumbling Lieutenant Jack Porter, others with the Machiavellian though morally pliable Sergeant Daniel Chambers. And I’m cool with that – villains are the heroes of their own stories, after all.
The one character nearly every reader seems to adore is Snoop, the platoon’s interpreter. Of Sudanese descent, Snoop serves as Jack’s only friend and confidante for much of the narrative, even if Jack doesn’t always realize it. Snoop also learned to speak English through a combination of British missionaries and gangsta’ rap. Snoop’s easy-going, brave, and full of his own dreams and purpose – Youngblood’s not much for happy endings, but if anyone in its pages deserves one, it’s him.
“Akrahquha” – Kadhim Al-Sahir
“Akrahquha” is a dark romantic ballad sung by Iraqi-born Kadhim Al-Sahir, who is sometimes referred to as “The Caesar of Arabic Song.” (At least according to his Wikipedia page.)
During my own time in Iraq, I had many a late-night chai with a sheik who adored the music of Kadhim Al-Sahir. Like, he listened to the same song over and over and over-typed of adored, no matter what the young men serving in the occupying army also in the room had to say about it. The sheik allegedly had ties to Sunni insurgents, and I never trusted him, but I did grow to have a deep respect for him – he took care of his tribe and people in the midst of incredible ruin and poverty.
“Summertime” – Janis Joplin
The heat. That goddamn heat. Conveying what central Iraq was like midday, high July, proved an exercise in and of itself as I wrote and rewrote Youngblood, and I’d often turn on this Joplin song for sheer visceral effect. We used to sometimes play it from our Stryker speakers before patrols, something that started randomly and then became a surreal joke. Looking back, something about the poetic anguish in Joplin’s voice and words must’ve been resonating with us: only she could understand The Suck of it all in that moment, that place, that time, when even the locals called us madmen for going outside in 120-plus degrees in full uniforms and sixty pounds of armor on our bodies.
“Lord, the sky.”
“Know Your Enemy” – Rage Against the Machine
The dark irony of American soldiers rocking out to Rage in foreign lands far from home always brought a smile to my face. Weren’t we the ultimate machine, after all, the one to be raged against? One of my sergeants – one with a fondness for quoting Howard Zinn, I should note – set me straight eight months into our fifteen-month tour.
“We aren’t the machine,” he said. “We just go where the machine orders us to.” He pointed out to the Iraqi town we’d been charged with protecting. “We got more in common with these folks than we do with the people back home who sent us here.” Then he flashed me the shaka sign and said, “Anger is a Gift.”
“All These Things That I’ve Done” – The Killers
Not only does “All These Things That I’ve Done” have the deliciously catchy “I Got Soul/But I’m Not a Soldier” refrain, it served as the auto jam for the ole’ Kaboom blog I wrote from Iraq in 2007 and ’08 (before it got shut down by the powers-that-be), back when things like Blogspot and having songs on one’s blog were still hip. I’ll admit, those opening bell sounds that lead into the song – ting! ting! ting! – still bring me back to the desert, and youth, and the rambling beautiful madness of both.
Matt Gallagher and Youngblood links:
BOMB interview with the author
The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author
Esquire interview with the author
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
Men's Journal interview with the author
Nevada Public Radio interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
Vogue interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)