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Matt Gallagher's Kaboom: A Review

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

For full FCC disclosure, here’s how we came across our copy of Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War: Over at Kerplunk, Gallagher’s (mil?)blog, he offered a little contest for a signed hardcover copy of Kaboom. Whoever wrote the best joke won. I entered the following:

An Irish man goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him he has cancer, and he is going to die. When the man returns home, he finds his son, and tells him, "Son, I have cancer and I'm going to die. But we're Irish, so I'm taking you to the pub to teach you how to drink." So they go to the pub. They order two pints and go to a table. Patrick and James, two old friends, approach the man.

"What's the occasion?" they ask.

"I've found out I have AIDS and I'm going to die," the man says, "So I'm taking my son out to the pub to teach him to drink."

They take a toast and leave. The son asks, "Dad, I thought you said you have cancer?"

"I do son, but I don't want those bastards sleeping with your mom after I'm dead."

Whether or not you think that joke is funny, Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir of his tour in Iraq, is very funny.  Like this passage from page 44:
    “I hate going in there,” Private Romero said. “...[the sergeant major] yelled at me for not shaving. I told him that we had just gotten back from an all-night OP and that I was going onto security, and then he told me, ‘Excuses are like assholes,’...what does that even mean?”
    “I think he meant, ‘Excuses are like assholes: Everyone has one,” Specialist Flashback explained.

Kaboom is filled with banter, humorous nicknames and jokes. It’s refreshing and, based on what Michael C has told me, accurate. But this humor doesn’t take away from the sadness of the whole thing. Gallagher has a keen literary eye and he picks up on the heart breaking details, like a trash dump in his Area of Operations where the children and people who live there are so beaten down by life they can’t even accept a beanie baby as a gift, leaving it lying on the ground.

Gallagher started out as a blogger during his tour in Iraq, and got fame (or notoriety) for blogging about his command while stationed. From that experience, he justifiably got a book deal. Kaboom tells the story of his time as a platoon leader in Saba Al-Bor and later working as a lethal targeting officer at a joint-security station in Hussaniyah. All in all, not a lot happens in Kaboom. (Aside from a freak accident, he doesn’t lose any men or get in that many firefights.) I mean this as a compliment, as you’ll know from my post here. By focusing on the banter, the nicknames and the minutiae, Gallagher writes a more accurate picture of war than most of the memoirs I’ve read. And more accurate for more soldiers.

I just love the prose. Told in small chunks--four to five page chapters, which I love--it reads like Dispatches. The writing is, at times, excellent, like this gem from page 12, “I locked and loaded my M4 Carbine by sticking a rifle magazine filled with thirty golden rounds of kill into it...” Or, “The dot [referring to the dot on the map] was impoverished. It was brutal. It was modern Iraq, permanently soaked in a blood-red-sea past it would never be able to part, let alone escape.” Or when he dubs the war, “iWar”. Gallagher also descends into italicized stream-of-consciousness prose, which you wouldn’t think would work, but it does.

This isn’t to say Kaboom is perfect. It’s not. It’s still a memoir, so many of my regular complaints about dialogue, over-explaining, over-abundance of characters, and complaining about leadership apply. On the last one, Gallagher spends a lot of time complaining about his bosses. It’s fine, but it isn’t my thing. I’ve had bosses, but I don’t think they make for good literature.

I think Gallagher has a lot of room to grow as a writer. But I’ll tell you what: Kaboom is one hell of a first book. It is out in paperback now. Pick up a copy.

two comments

I’m glad you finally got around to this one, Eric. I told you you would like it.

Kaboom is very good, agreed. For me, it accumulates power as Gallagher gradually allows the reader to understand not only the actual events of war that he experiences but also the effect over time on his inner life. Many scenes and images have stayed with me.