The Iraq stories are hard to compete with, but some of the alternating chapters of his stunted life back home are sometimes effective, too. Despite how politicized the war on terror has been from the start, Bartle reserves his greatest anger for America’s unified gratitude, those cheery yellow ribbons, the back-slapping congratulations, everyone telling him, “Thank you for your service,” as though they had any idea why he went, what he accomplished, or what price he paid in that remote corner of the world.
Tempering one’s enthusiasm for a vet’s war novel seems, if not unpatriotic, then at least peevish and small-minded. Surely, anyone who has survived battle and lived to write about it this well deserves to ride through the bookstore under a flurry of confetti made from congratulatory blurbs.
That’s certainly been the initial response to “The Yellow Bird.” Tom Wolfe calls it “ ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of America’s Arab wars.” Anthony Swofford, who knows battle himself, sets it alongside Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Philip Caputo compares its opening to “Moby-Dick,” but sensing perhaps that that’s insufficient, goes on to invoke “The Iliad.” This sort of praise helps attract attention in a fall publishing season crowded with big, splashy books from Michael Chabon and J.K. Rowling, but it also raises crushing expectations for a modest, affecting novel like this one.
Because, frankly, the parts of “The Yellow Bird” are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision. Murph risks being a hick cliche, and moments of recycled Hemingway sound glib, e.g.: “They were young and had girls at home or some dream that they thought would make their lives important. They had been wrong of course.”
At other times, Powers gets snarled up in his own language, as in this sentence: “Home, too, was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the better portion of myself as one among innumerable grains of sand, how in the end the weather-beaten stone is not one stone but only that which has been weathered, a result, an example of slow erosion on a thing by wind or waves that break against it, so that the else of anyone involved ends up deposited like silt spilling out into an estuary, or gathered at the bottom of a river in a city that is all you can remember.” Lost in a thicket like that, we need an editor to bring back the poet who wrote, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
Powers hasn’t written a classic war novel yet, but there are enough victories in these pages to suggest he’s marching in the right direction.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.