Pretend You Don’t Care

‘Eat the Apple’ by Matt Young

The author photo inside the dust jacket of this beguiling, yet disturbing, memoir reminds me of the young Bobby Orr. Square jaw, broad nose, twinkling eyes, ready smile: these comprised the clean-cut Orr “look” back in the 1960s when the star Boston Bruins hockey player broke into the NHL.

Orr was a natural for whom difficult things seemed to come easily. He also came across as the sort of fellow you wouldn’t mind your kid sister dating.

Judging from his own account, few things have come easily for Matt Young. As for dating your kid sister: you might want to ride along as chaperone. Indeed, the reader gets to the end of this book wondering: Why is this guy grinning?

Eat the Apple is Young’s retrospective look at his tour of duty as an enlisted Marine during our ongoing era of endless war. The title refers to a putative Marine adage that, even in our anything-goes Age of Donald Trump, remains unprintable in this magazine. A G-rated version might go like this: when fate deals you a lousy hand, pretend you don’t care. Before the last card gets played, thumb your nose at the dealer.

Be forewarned, however: nothing about Eat the Apple is G-rated. Young’s vocabulary leans heavily toward the scatological. A vulgar but familiar synonym for fornication, pressed into service as a noun, verb, adjective, and all-purpose expletive, further reinforced as the occasion demands with a maternal prefix, appears on nearly every page, frequently on multiple occasions.

Herewith a suitably expurgated example. New recruit Young has failed to accord a corporal appropriate respect:

Know what happens to boots who don’t sound off, boot?

No, Corporal.

They get really dead, Young. You want to really die, boot?

No, Corporal.

Too darned bad, because you’re going to get your darned head blown off over there because you don’t have the darned stones to sound off…

The one-sided exchange goes on from there.

 

As to what it all means, I am less certain. Perhaps, in our postmodern moment, questions about meaning are out of order.

The story that Young tells adheres to a now-familiar arc of military memoirs: deciding to sign up (nothing much doing: “the only way to change is the self-flagellation achieved by signing up for war”); recruit-training (thirteen weeks of degradation: essential, according to the Corps, to creating real Marines); further training at another stateside post (reclaiming a smidgen of autonomy by consuming copious amounts of booze and having lots of sex while off-duty); deployment to the combat zone, in Young’s case Iraq (filth, stench, innovative approaches to masturbation, and long periods of boredom laced with odd moments of terror, all accompanied by the gradual realization that the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing); redeployment back to the United States (painfully awkward reunification with clueless loved ones, followed by plenteous booze and sex in the company of Marine buddies); and then volunteering for a second tour in Iraq (nothing else doing: why not give self-flagellation another shot?)

Eventually, Young receives his discharge from active service and is flung back into the civilian world, which soon enough finds him

trying to forget those times I chugged whiskey and fought and was shot at and exploded and lived in a hole and hated life and hated everyone and hated myself and shot mongrel dogs and screwed anything that moved and smoked two packs a day and hazed new joins and ran until I threw up because I was still drunk from the night before and made my family cry.

In recounting the sequence of events leading to this moment of reckoning, Young dabbles in just about every known literary form this side of iambic pentameter. He tries his hand at omniscient third-person narration, shifting as the spirit moves him to the first-person, both singular and plural. He offers up miniature screenplays, droll sketches, reveries, do-it-yourself advice columns, and letters addressed to “past-me”—the person Young used to be—along with a formal apology to a nameless San Clemente cabbie he punched out while inebriated. He even includes a sappy love story of sorts.

Throw in a fifteen-step formula for “How to Ruin a Life” (“Step 1: Start out with something to prove. Join the United States Marine Corps”), stick-figure cartoons, and other pen-and-ink drawings that include anatomically correct renderings of the male body (with both frontal and rear exposure), and you end up with quite a festive display of creative talent. Somewhere between boot camp and his emergence as a Bobby Orr lookalike, Young developed a capacity for pungent and incisive writing.

So make no mistakethis book is as darkly entertaining as it is crude and salacious. Young’s tone throughout is sardonic, self-mocking, and grimly humorous. Imagine Dr. Strangelove’s prissy Group Captain Mandrake finding himself suddenly reassigned from Burpelson Air Force Base to a desert war that can’t be won, with foul-mouthed post-adolescents as his bunkmates; the comic possibilities that Young exploits are comparable. The result is not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s cringe funny. It’s laugh-to-keep-from-weeping funny.

As to what it all means, I am less certain. Perhaps, in our postmodern moment, questions about meaning are out of order. Perhaps Eating the Apple means nothing at all, and readers are thereby invited to classify Matt Young’s ordeal as of no greater significance than a bad movie or a lousy restaurant meal. Or perhaps Young’s memoir is merely an exercise in personal catharsis, enabling the author once and for all to consign his Marine “past-me” to the past. If so, it is a vanity project of little relevance to the rest of us.

My own inclination is to push back against such a conclusion. I have known more than a few Marines. To a man (all are men), they take pride in their military service and in the Corps. They take seriously the values that the Corps professes to represent: honor, courage, and commitment. It is not for me to question whether those values adequately describe what it means to be a Marine today. But Matt Young would beg to differ.

 

Eat the Apple
A Memoir

Matt Young
Bloomsbury, $26, 251 pp.

Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is the author most recently of Twilight of the American Century, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Also by this author
A New Kind Of War?

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