The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel of Kevin Powers, a veteran of the Iraq War with an MFA in Poetry. The book enjoyed billing this past season as the first great literary fiction to emerge from this war, but it seems many reviewers graded it on a curve (presumably) because of its subject matter and source. Politics aside, The Yellow Birds is not this generation’s war classic. It is, however, a new author’s formidable display of talent and potential – a tight, lyrical first chapter followed by a fractured narrative of 10 more chapters, much of it beautifully written, some of it problematic. Powers proves his enviable ear for language, and applies it well in many places, but overall the work lacks cohesion, and the lovely lyricism can be overwrought, especially when it stands in place of clear plot points and authentic characterization.

Greater Detail:
Named for a marching cadence (see the epigraph) that articulates unanticipated but casual brutality, The Yellow Birds relays the descent of 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy (“Murph”) into war’s psychic indifference to violence. Just before deployment to Iraq, the more seasoned Bartle, who narrates, pledges to Murph’s mother that he will bring her son home alive. The obvious foreshadowing pays off almost immediately: readers learn upfront that Murph eventually dies. Bartle will fail to make good on his promise.

He and the novel have that in common.

But The Yellow Birds does have a certain power, especially up front where it is sparse and poetic: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” With those first seven words, Powers immediately disavows the assumption that war is an activity in which soldiers participate; rather, he personifies war as a separate entity, another character, with menacing habits: “While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. 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.” Powers distances the soldiers from their acts of aggression, which now do not comprise war, but counter the being of it.

Powers sets the bar high here. He clarifies the experience of the war through off-center literary device, and the reader expects him to continue. In many instances, he does. But, Powers also overindulges in the lyricism and technique. When he presented the war as a creature, it was pure fantasy, but an organic truth rose from that fantasy: War takes on a life of its own. In other places, no truth ascends and the prose just thickens on the page. See here,100 pages in:

“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.”

It is unfortunate that Powers did not have Bartle do something indicative of the sentiment instead of think this muddy thought.

The plot also suffers from the occasional stumble as it jumps back and forth in time and place, from Iraq to New Jersey to Germany to Iraq and back. The reader soldiers on, seeking to learn how Murph dies. The disjointed plot underscores the theme of fragmented experience beautifully – but narrative structure should do more than reflect theme. Narrative structure should place the reader firmly in a setting, while propelling her forward in the story.

The book focuses the reader on resonant images of everyday beauty and decay (hyacinths, parading rats) and isolating scenes of horror (corpse bombs, castrated bodies). But for all the complex turns and twists, at times Powers fails to simply set the place clearly. Chapter Two’s title page claims Fort Dix, New Jersey as the setting, but then starts off talking about vocational schools in West Virginia and the stars in the Georgia sky, with no explanation. Still, while the chapters often read like loosely bound poetic musings instead of a fully connected storyline, the quality of much of that musing holds a promise beyond the context of this book: the promise of its author. The Yellow Birds may not live up to the hype, but it is a formidable start, and Kevin Powers may just have the talent and ambition to eventually deliver the total package.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
Of course, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried comes to mind as comparable literary fiction about war. One similarity: Like Powers, O’Brien employs an indirect device to make a point; he demonstrates the characters’ natures not through description, but rather by detailing the items they carried during war, while also underscoring the literal weight of those items and thus the figurative weight of the war. However, O’Brien has a consummate control of pacing that Powell does not. Perhaps David Adams’ Fobbit, another flawed but interesting novel about the Iraq war will prove to be more relevant. Standby for that review.

© 2013 Leigh Rastivo

Leave a Reply