End of Active Service: A Novel by Matt Young


Review by Brian Tanguay

Dean Pusey is broken. By the Marine Corps and a tour of duty in Iraq. By the circumstances of his birth and adoption. By confusion about his sexuality. He was used to taking and executing orders, but civilian life is an overwhelming welter of choices, an endless loop of “what if” questions and decisions and infinite possibilities. 

Matt Young wrote about his experience in the Marines in his memoir Eat the Apple, published in 2018. In End of Active Service, his debut novel, readers get the jargon, banter and attitude of a warrior culture, full of hard-drinking, misogyny, gun worship and physical violence. Young’s writing style is staccato, clipped, propulsive. While the Corps provides the backdrop, this isn’t a war novel: it’s the story of a young vet desperate to shed the habits of mind and body that were drilled into him. Being tough, impervious to pain and dismissive of weakness may be useful attributes in combat, but civilian life requires a different set of coping skills.  

“I didn’t give a shit about WMD or illegal wars or freedom or anything,” Dean says about why he joined the Marines. “I’d looked at the people around me — teachers, parents, friends — and I didn’t want their fucking lives. I hated them and myself and the entire goddamned world and I wanted to burn it all down.”

End of Active Service is personal, not political. The closest the novel comes to making a political statement about war is when Nguyen, a fellow Marine, tells Dean: “This shit’s ending. That’s all. About fucking time. This isn’t a war. No honor here.”

Dean’s predilection for destruction and violence runs deep and isn’t alleviated when he returns home to Indiana and his step-family. Shifting out of Marine-mode is a minute-by-minute struggle, and Dean can’t stop himself from assessing threats, scoping out rooms with an eye to firing angles and spots where an enemy might hide. He’s stuck in Mindset Orange, on alert. He may have left the Marines behind physically, but his mind and psyche is burdened with memories and recurring demons. He’s haunted by Ruiz, the buddy who understood him best but took his own life. Ruiz is a ghost who mocks and chides, he reminds Dean of a forbidden moment they shared. 

The novel toggles between the civilian present and the military past, but always from Dean’s point of view. I found this challenging because Dean can be an asshole and spending nearly three hundred pages inside his head was tiring, but this single point of view reinforces the personal consequences of war and violence: the heavy physical and psychological weight and the habits of mind that are so obdurate and hard to interrupt. 

Although I felt compassion for his situation, I found Dean hard to take in the early chapters. 

But to his credit, Young gives Dean enough humanity to allow for the possibility of change and redemption. A better man lurks beneath the pain. Although Dean is tormented by his fears and failings, he’s also brutally honest about them. He knows he’s messed up and doesn’t try to convince himself otherwise. Max, the young woman Dean meets in a bar, immediately recognizes this dynamic; although she has her own issues, Max is more together than Dean, more independent and better educated, able to construct a life on her own terms. 

When Max tells Dean that she likes him, that he’s a good guy and makes her laugh, he’s not sure he deserves the acceptance and affection and fears Max will bolt if she gets to know him better. He’s afraid of becoming fat and happy, happy and fat, a white lamb chop civilian. What would Ruiz think?

Five months out of the Marines, living in his truck, loading cargo at night for UPS, the last thing Dean needs is to become a father, but there he is with Max in an exam room for the first ultrasound. How little they know about each other is made clear when Dean struggles to fill out a simple questionnaire about his family medical history, which he doesn’t know because he’s adopted, a fact he hasn’t shared with Max until now. 

The pregnancy and birth of a daughter, River, and Dean’s response to the sudden responsibility of caring for an infant, changing diapers, warming bottles of milk and folding onesies, and missing out on sleep occupies a chunk of the novel and leads to the climax. When Max attends an out-of-state conference for her job, Dean is alone with River for the first time, a test of a different order from any he’s ever faced. Can he handle it? Or will he blow it? This part of the novel is harrowing; Young creates and sustains an unbearable tension. 

Without sleep for more than three days, assailed by the wild thoughts ricocheting around his brain, and a baby totally dependent on him, Dean marches to the very edge of a crackup. 

Dean Pusey is broken, damaged, but he’s trying to put himself back together. He once believed that he and Ruiz and their fellow Marines were hard men, locked, loaded and ready to do violence. Warriors. Killers. This notion, Dean comes to realize, is unsustainable because even the hardest warrior is still human.