I picked this book because I thought a war memoir would be an interesting non-fiction to listen to. I guess I only read the first part of the sentence, because I had no idea that this was A. about WW2, and B. about a group of men already covered in an HBO miniseries (Band of Brothers) and a movie (Saving Private Ryan). But that didn’t matter so much, as I haven’t seen either of those shows. I just wanted to learn about someone who had a different life from me.
Boy howdy did I get that in spades. Here’s what we forget about WWII: it was a long time ago. My mother is retirement age, and yet she wasn’t even born when the events of this book took place. The times were different, and the people were different. Things that people took for granted back then seem so alien now. This happened before the sixties counterculture revolution, before the civil right’s movement, before cell phone and computer technology, before everyone knew what an atomic bomb was. WW2 feels so familiar because it’s been mined ruthlessly for books and movies for the past 7 decades, but people forget that it was a lifetime ago.
Part of my problem with this was that Don Malarkey was so different from me and my life that I had nothing to connect me to him. I guess we’re both Americans, and we’re both white, and we both live in the west, and…we both get sad when our friends die? I’m kinda drawing blanks. When I read about someone’s life, I want to feel that I have some point of connection. I had trouble feeling that with this book. Malarkey was basically a simple Irish bro from a small town. He liked huntin’ and fishin’ and knocking back brews with his frat brothers. Then he went to war, and spent a couple of years in an elite fighting unit that helped turn the Nazis back. Then he came home and lived an ordinary life, except that some people made movies and television about his war days so he got famous.
I understand that there was some good material here, since they made a movie and a miniseries out of it, but Malarkey seems to assume that everyone who read this book had already seen the stuff that made him famous, so he doesn’t really dwell much on the good material. He wanted to add more, so you’d know the real him, but the real him bored me. If this were fiction, an editor would say “yes, yes, we understand Malarkey used to seine salmon, and he liked picking blackberries, and once his family got caught in a forest fire, and he memorized some poems, but you’ve already used those twice each. Doesn’t he have any other thing in his life? He feels underdeveloped.” Maybe he really WAS that simple. Maybe athletic, small-town guys with simple lives are the best material for war heroes. However, athletic, small-town guys with simple lives don’t really make for good memoir-writers. Easy Company under siege at the battle of the bulge makes for an exciting story. Easy company drinking in a hotel–not so much.
I’m not saying this book is bad, but it’s not a novel about a soldier in war so much as a novel about a very ordinary guy who happened to spend a couple years in a pivotal position of a war everyone loves to talk about. Malarkey suffered the loss of one of his best friends, then bottled his grief for more than half a century, because that’s what stoic non-introspective men who came of age in the beginning of last century were raised to do. He’s a simple man, a man of action, and a brave hero. In short, he’s the polar opposite of David Sedaris, who is one of the most humorous memoir-writers out there. Make of that what you will.