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'Eat The Apple' Is A Brilliant And Barbed Memoir Of The Iraq War

Matt Young enlisted in the Marines when he was 18 and served three tours in Iraq.
Tara Monterosso
Matt Young enlisted in the Marines when he was 18 and served three tours in Iraq.

Matt Young enlisted in the Marines in 2005 on impulse. He was 18 years old, and hours before he walked into the recruitment center, he'd gotten drunk and crashed his car into a fire hydrant. Young knew he needed direction in life and thought that becoming a Marine would help him to quickly "man up."

Midway through his superb debut memoir, Eat the Apple, Young describes the surreal experience of flying back to the U.S. on a four-day leave from the Iraq War. His family and fiancée are waiting to greet him when he arrives in California. Young recalls wanting "so badly to be happy when he sees them."

Of course, that simple wish is doomed. A wall of incomprehension divides Young from his loved ones. At the hotel, Young chugs beers and tries to connect by telling stories about Iraq — stories about detaining a 12-year-old boy; about how he and his fellow Marines can't stop laughing during a deadly ambush because they're so terrified.

As his family and fiancée grow silent, Young decides he needs to make up other kinds of war stories, fictional ones that are still full of bullets and blood, but also full of meaning. Stories where "he gets to feel, for once, like a hero."

But that strategy doesn't work out so well either. Young remembers waking up the next morning with "a tough, meaty, sick feeling in the ethereal place beyond his stomach ... a shattered figurative pelvic bone where he birthed his lie into the world."

Like Young's family, most of us readers still want to be told war stories where violence and death are redeemed by a larger purpose. And, yet, throughout history, so many of the writers and poets who've seen combat tell us it's just pretty to think so. The theme that war is absurd has only intensified in recent years with cynical Iraq War novels like Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Eat the Apple falls into formation right alongside those fictional testaments of youth and war. As a memoir, it loosely follows that most traditional of plots: a young man's growth from innocence to experience. But that's the only aspect of Young's narrative that's conventional.

Young is a frank, funny and mercilessly self-lacerating narrator. His writing is entertaining and experimental — two adjectives not often found together. To convey the chaos of his three deployments in Iraq, Young writes in choppy chapters filled with lists, letters, cartoons, plays and, yes, lots of stories.

His lighter subjects range from desert sandflies to the inventive ways Marines devise to, um, entertain themselves (as in the diagrammed chapter entitled "How to Make a Portable Partner").

Without warning, these comic interludes take a turn toward the brutish. Young owns up to killing dogs for sport and bullying and breaking a junior recruit. Then the narrative veers off again into explosions, sniper attacks and down time in camp where the young Marines rub suntan oil on each other and try to figure out whether what they're feeling is more than just Marine Corps brotherhood.

Throughout his memoir, Young questions just how that fateful decision to enlist transformed the raw teenager that he sometimes calls "past-me." Nowhere is the answer more disturbing than in the chapter called "Masks." There, Young describes how he hardened into a "person-thing" in the Marine Corps.

Years after his discharge, Young says he discovered a photograph taken of a gruesome scene involving the defilement of the corpse of a suicide bomber. Here's Young, referring to himself through the distancing collective pronoun, "we," describing his response to that photo:

Eat the Apple is a brilliant and barbed memoir of the Iraq War. Unlike his "past-me" self in that hotel room struggling to communicate with his family, Young has now found the language to convey the messy totality of his experiences. And that's just about all the redemption you'll find in Young's war story.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.