EAT THE APPLE
By Matt Young
251 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
The trouble with writing the unvarnished truth in a memoir is that it requires you to be hard not only on others, but also on yourself.
Matt Young’s inventive, unsparing, irreverent and consistently entertaining “Eat the Apple” is that, but it is also a useful corrective to the current idealization of the American soldier — or in this case a Marine. Patriotism and respect for the military is so high in this country that we have lately held a national debate over whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem. Men and women in uniform are given preference in boarding airplanes, and are so routinely thanked for their service that the expression has become rote. Each new season brings a crop of movies and glossy TV serials dramatizing the heroics of our Special Operations.
Young sees hollowness and potential harm in this.
“Enforcing the idea that every service member is a hero is dangerous,” he writes. “Like creating a generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good.” Young warns of “creating an army of fanatics.”
Service deserves respect, of course, but it does not in itself guarantee stirring and selfless acts of bravery. Young is his own case in point. He sees his experience — three tours in Iraq — as far from heroic. He is at least as disturbed by his duty as he is proud of it. These contradictory feelings are a central theme in his book. Years removed, he both loathes and pines for the man he became in the Marine Corps. What he calls his “Past-me” was a reckless, selfish, cruel and dangerous man.
“The infantrymen are called grunts and crunchies,” he writes. “They are stupid and intelligent and cruel and beautiful and black and white and brown and yellow and fat and lazy and lithe and godlike and frightening in their dedication to death.”
It is useful for many reasons to better understand the teenagers we uniform and train and send to war. That way we can better see what happens when they are deployed. Young writes less about war here than about the culture of being a Marine, one of the few and the proud. His memoir — its title, “Eat the Apple,” refers to a vulgar Marine proverb — is in its own way a loving portrait, but it is also unsparing, ugly and outrageous. I can’t see it making the commandant’s reading list.
Young and his fellow Marines are horny, deeply insecure, often drunk, compulsively (and inventively) masturbatory and disturbingly driven to kill. Away from the war zone they drink themselves sick, fight, and cheat on their wives and girlfriends. Deployed, they sometimes desecrate corpses and shoot dogs for sport. They are also willing to risk their lives and to kill with abandon for their country. All too often they come home maimed or in coffins.
Few of them turn into the kind of writers capable of sorting this all out. Young is an honest, clever, darkly humorous one. He has written a collection of arresting vignettes, roughly chronological, in a variety of forms, everything from hallucinogenic prose poems like “A New Species of Yucca,” about finding a human leg absurdly protruding from “Iraqi-desert hardpan”; to a comic strip (illustrated), about a small act of revenge against the chain of command; to a darkly satirical Marine instructional manual and brutal self-indictment, “How to Ruin a Life,” in which he tells us in 15 crisply delineated steps how he, Young, hounded and humiliated an inept recruit into going AWOL, the first in a series of missteps that led to the young man’s death: