Halfway through our ongoing war on terror, a scholar at the University of East London estimated that a new book on terrorism was being published in English every six hours. Fiction writers were slower to engage with Sept. 11, but by 2006, the attacks and America’s response were becoming a touchstone for major novelists, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Claire Messud, Ward Just, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Joseph O’Neill, Andre Debus III, Lorrie Moore, Allegra Goodman, Sue Miller and many, many others. Even more than a decade into that insatiable conflict, two of the best novels of this year — “Wish You Were Here,” by Graham Swift, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain — revolve around soldiers returning home from Iraq.
And now comes a novel about the Iraq war written by an Iraq war veteran. Kevin Powers enlisted at 17 and served as an Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004-05. After returning home, he studied creative writing and poetry at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Yellow Birds” is his first novel, and though it isn’t the first work of fiction about the war on terror by someone who actually fought in it, such books fill a relatively short shelf.
“The Yellow Birds” reads like a collection of 11 linked short stories. Except for one that takes place in Germany, they move back and forth between Iraq in the fall of 2004 and the United States from 2003 to 2009. The narrator is John Bartle, a pensive, guilt-ridden vet recalling his friendship with another young soldier he calls Murph. “We were boys then,” Bartle says, and in the disturbing scenes of battle that he describes, it’s impossible to forget that these soldiers carrying out the fantasies of politicians back in Washington are barely old enough to vote.
Bartle and Murph form the sort of intense friendship that battle cements quickly. Two Virginia boys, they’d “had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.” The younger man’s naivete appeals to Bartle’s sense of responsibility. As they’re getting ready to ship out, he makes a solemn promise to Murph’s mother to bring her son back home safely. But he admits early on, “The world makes liars of us all,” and the rest of the novel is a tortured search for how he failed to protect his friend in battle, an effort to “assemble all the marks into a story that made sense.”
The first chapter demonstrates what Powers can do so well, and anthology editors should be fighting over the rights to excerpt it from the novel. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” he begins. “We stayed awake on amphetamines and fear. I pushed my chest off the rooftop and crested the low wall, trying to scan the few acres of the world for which we were responsible.” Patrolling the streets with his buddies, Bartle describes a life in which the most lurid scenes of carnage have become routine. “Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed,” he says. “We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.” Watching a civilian being shot in the street, he wants to jump up and yell, “What kind of men are we?” but then suddenly he realizes, “I was shooting at him and I wouldn’t stop until I was sure that he was dead.”
Throughout “The Yellow Birds,” amid the gore and the terror and the boredom, you can hear notes of Powers’s work as a poet. At the end of one story, “The sun set like a clot of blood on the horizon.” In another, “While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer,” he writes. “When we pressed onward throughout exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.” More than a little of that rich language would risk turning the novel florid, but Powers rarely oversteps.
In the best sections, he moves gracefully between spare, factual description of the soldiers’ work to simple, hard-won reflections on the meaning of war. “I’d been trained to think war was a great unifier,” he says, “that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?” His lacerating honesty never feels false or fails to shock, as when he admits, “We only grieved those we knew. All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth.”
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.
THE YELLOW BIRDS
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown. 230 pp. $24.99