Eat the Apple
Bloomsbury, New York, 2018, 272 pages
Book Review published on: May 4, 2018
Eat the Apple is a memoir by former Marine Corps infantryman and Iraq war veteran Matt Young who delivers a raw, introspective account of war, masculinity, inner struggle, and becoming a marine. In a beautiful prose that borders on poetic, Young’s coming-of-age story takes the reader through a brutally honest self-examination and into the world of an infantryman. Many of the scenes will find immediate resonance with those who have served in similar circumstances. Readers from all backgrounds will appreciate this book’s deeply human narrative of a young man’s search for meaning, trial, and ultimate redemption through extraordinary circumstances.
Masculinity serves as a central theme of the book as both a primary motivating factor for the author and the defining characteristic of the infantry units in which he serves. Throughout the story, Young seeks to achieve manhood, an evolving and elusive state that seems perpetually just out of reach. In early 2005, a nineteen-year-old Young finds himself at a recruitment center “situated between Pier 1 Imports and a Walmart in the middle of a strip mall of miscellanea.” He tells himself that he signed up for Marine infantry because “you got drunk last night and crashed your car into a fire hydrant sometime in the early morning and think … that the only way to change is the self-flagellation achieved by signing up for war.” Once there, Young looks for father figures among the men who train him and finds many. His feelings toward each reflect his own tortured relationship with his father. Addressing his former self, Young explains that “you will not be able to sleep at night as you replay the ways in which you let them down or might have let them down in your head.” He believes that this anxiety he feels is because he is “a son to those men and shame is what sons feel in the presence of their fathers.” As the narrative progresses, Young becomes a paternal role model to new marines who feel the same way toward him.
Reverent of his new father figures, the marines in their early twenties who had been with the unit on their previous deployment to Fallujah in 2004, Young expects to pass the same test of fire in his Iraq deployment. During the deployment, Young is shot at, blown up, and loses friends, yet leaves feeling inadequate as he never “got in a real firefight” or killed anyone. Returning stateside, Young’s insecurities lead him to fabricate a combat story “where he doesn’t feel as though he has to explain his actions. A story where he gets to feel, for once, like a hero.” He lies and gets stuck in the lie. No longer considered the most junior marine, Young assumed the mantle of the father figure to new marines in his unit by both mentoring and hazing them. Fueled by a deepening alcohol problem, he breaks his knuckles in bar fights, drives drunk, and cheats on his fiancée. Partly trying to avoid facing the deepening problems in his personal life and partly chasing after a “real” combat experience that he feels he has been cheated out of thus far, Young volunteers for a third deployment to Iraq. Posted on a large air base in 2009, he is disappointed to realize that the war that had tried so hard to get back to, the one of lore and legends in his world, has already ended.
Young utilizes a variety of literary forms and voices, illustrations, and even comic strips to tell his story. These unorthodox forms blur the line between reality and imagination, helping the reader to suspend disbelief and enter into the absurdity of many of Young’s experiences as an infantryman. Delving deeply and hilariously into the profane one moment and reaching the sublime the next, he inhabits the full spectrum of the infantry experience. Young captures the creativity, ingenuity, and heroism of marines and the beautiful familial bonds that develop between them. Young unabashedly depicts an unvarnished portrait of himself and the tight-knight group of marines that surround him, fully exploring their virtue, foibles, and contradictions. “The infantrymen are called grunts and crunchies. 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.”
Eat the Apple represents perhaps the most important contribution to date in the growing corpus of literature by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Eschewing cliché, embracing both the sacred and profane of the infantry, Young goes well beyond the uniform into the conflicted reality of the men America sends to fight its wars.
Book Review written by: Capt. Ian Cameron, U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina