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The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
There's a long stream-of-consciousness passage toward the middle of former soldier Kevin Powers' haunting, disturbing and downright gorgeous debut novel about the Iraq War that acts as something of a thesis. "...really, cowardice got you into this mess," says his narrator, 21-year-old John Bartle, speaking about himself in the second person, "because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you in the cafeteria and hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they'd call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man..."
The unsettling sentence that quotation comes from is more than a page long. The book takes the form of a fractured narrative, taking place both during before and after the war, hurtling toward and away from the traumatic event at the book's center, and in the passage in question Bartle is back home in Virginia and reflecting. In the war, his friend Murph has died, and the circumstances surrounding his death have pushed Bartle to the brink, where he will either come to terms with the legal and psychological consequences of his actions, or let those actions define and destroy him forever.
I chose that passage to highlight for a few reasons. First, it states very simply what The Yellow Birds is. It's a novel about a poet--an awkward, smart, artsy kid who loved books just as much as you and me--who enlisted in the Army at seventeen, witnessed the horrors of war, and returned to tell the tale. The second reason I chose that passage is that it's far from perfect. It's hard not to get lost in a page-long sentence, and hard not to question whether there wasn't a more concise and to-the-point way to express the emotions driving the prose. That's the way The Yellow Birds as a whole is, too. It has its flaws--it moves at a very meandering pace, and Powers sometimes seems to get a bit lost in longer passages, giving the words themselves the run of the show and drawing too much attention to the writing--but to get stuck on these imperfections is to miss the point. The fact is, this sharp little novel's existence is something of a miracle, and I don't believe that's overstating it.
Reading Kevin Powers felt like reading Justin Cronon's The Summer Guest last year, or Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim some years before that, or Blood Meridian, or The Sportswriter, or Hemingway's Nick Adam's Stories. In other words, reading it felt like a seminal event, and I knew before I was halfway through that it would eventually find its way onto my life list of favorites.
The reasons why are simple enough. Just yesterday, for example, the New York Times broke a major story about the use of drones in Pakistan, revealing that the CIA made a deal with the Pakistani government to kill a Pakistani enemy of state in exchange for airspace. It might take a second to sink in, but when it does, it's almost impossible not to double-take or recoil in horror. Since when did the U.S. government become an assassin for hire? The problem with putting this undeniably messed up state of affairs into fiction though is almost that it's too easy. Of course it's messed up, it's obvious, but what justifies writing a whole book to tell us about it?
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, the other great war novel of 2012, which was a good and entertaining book but will not end up on my life list of favorites (or, in my opinion, in the canon) answers this question (i.e. justifies its existence) by making the story about more than just the war, drenching its narrative in a glitzy if somewhat repulsive Americana, and pointing the finger outward, to the state of the country and the world. It's not just the war! Fountain enthuses. It's all messed up! But again, is this news? (See a more comprehensive review of Fountain's book here at the website this Wednesday).
Powers' book, on the other hand, answers the question in the right way. He ignores the politics, the state of the world, ideas about what exactly America is at the current moment and instead presents us with a laser focused view of what the war is, or what it looked like to a poet accidentally caught up in it. His concern is with what it is to be human, and what coming face-to-face with the horrors of war can do to a young man's perspective. If that sounds old-fashioned, it is. If that sounds like it has been done before, it has. But it hasn't been done about this war, and it hasn't been done in quite this way.
The obvious comparison to The Yellow Birds is Hemingway's war novels and, intentionally or not, Powers invokes Hemingway again and again in these pages. But this is much more than facsimile. Powers allows himself a structure that it's hard to imagine Hemingway using, includes sentences that Hemingway would likely have cut for being too flowery, and gives his narrator the freedom to slip into stream-of-consciousness. It's brutal, unflinching, and beautiful. We all have our opinions about Hemingway, but one point that can't be argued is that the man was a worker. He believed in his writing as art, and he strove for the eternal. He slaved over his sentences. Here is Powers describing a firefight:
"Noctiluca, I thought, Ceratium, as the tracers began to show themselves sifted in twilight, two words learned on a school field trip to the tidewaters of Virginia that appeared as I was shooting at the man, paying no attention then to the strange connections made inside my mind, the small storms of electricity that cause them to rise and then submerge, then rise again. A fleeting thought of a young girl beside me on a dock, back there the twilight coming on, the crack of tracers as I shot and shot again, the man crawling from his weapon until he stopped and his blood trickled down the river in its final ebbing tide, brief as bioluminescence."
Look, we all know the America we live in. It's a giant shopping mall full of glittering lights and subdivisions. It's a post-industrial empire in perpetual recession and decline. And we all know what we know about the war. It's messed up, it isn't quite right. But America and the War on Terror also make an easy target. In my mind, the easier war novel to write would be one that looks at military service from that lens, i.e., what does it say about me as a soldier that I am serving this embarrassing eyesore of a country? But Powers takes the opposite approach. We all know what we know, and he doesn't argue for or against it. What he does instead is approach his material with the will to transform it into art. This is significant, because this devotion implies that a life, Bartle's life, or Powers' life, or the life of any given soldier--even in the age of the internet, endless strip malls, Kim Kardashian, and yes, drones--is still worth carefully expressing. By taking as much care with his sentences as Hemingway (or Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson) and aiming to create something eternal, Powers has made a profound statement: America circa the present is worth this slavish devotion to detail, the current war is worth the work it takes to express something so complex as art, and its heroes, the young men and women fighting it, deserve to be elevated in the same way that Hemingway elevated the heroes of his wars.
This book made me sad that Powers had to fight in this war, but very happy that he was there to bear witness and bring this story back with him. It also made me feel patriotic, proud of the tradition of American letters, and proud to be participating in it as a reader.
Out of 10: 10