The Yellow Birds
- Kevin Powers
- Little, Brown
- 226 pp.
- October 16, 2012
Written by an Iraq War veteran, this novel provides an arms-length exploration of life on the front lines.
Reviewed by Steve Watkins
The Yellow Birds, a first novel by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, reads much like the experience of that particular war itself, at least as it’s been described to me by other veterans: long passages of not a whole lot going on punctuated by intense, short-lived spasms of violence. The good news is that Powers tells his story in a lyrical style that takes us deeply and effectively inside the voice and consciousness of his narrator, an emotionally damaged Army private named Bartles.
The bad news is that the author rarely lets us out of that consciousness, keeping us locked there even through what should be vivid battle scenes, necessary character development, and essential passages of dialogue.
We’re told that the older, more experienced Bartles was ordered to take the younger, naïve Murphy under his wing in basic training, and that on the eve of their posting in Iraq, Bartles promised Murphy’s mother that he would bring her son home safely. What we never get to see, though, is the development of that relationship, or a full enough sense of Murphy’s psychological disintegration in the war, which ultimately leads to his death.
As a result, while we do get an oftentimes resonant meditation on the war and its aftermath, we’re kept at arm’s length, and debilitating emotional distance, from most of the action. More important, perhaps, we’re kept at too great a distance from other characters and their relationships with the narrator — including the friendship between Bartles and his doomed younger companion, Murphy, which is intended to be at the heart of the story.
Part of the problem is the retrospective voice itself. In the real time of the novel — in a trope borrowed from Hemingway and countless other war authors (I recommend Thom Jones’ short story “The Pugilist at Rest”) — we’re with Bartles, alone in a cabin in the woods, looking back on what happened in Iraq and trying to make sense of it all. This gives the story a static quality from which it rarely escapes. Even in what should be the most powerful encounters — between Bartles and Murphy’s mother, between Bartles and the C.I.D. officer who tracks him down after the war, between Bartles and a sergeant who is a co-conspirator in a humanitarian deed that is nonetheless a criminal act — Powers interrupts his narrative with reflective passages, compounding the problem at times by also being elliptical to the point of confusion.
The structure of The Yellow Birds hops back and forth between chapters set in the Iraq city of Tal Afar, and those set before and after the war, back in the States. Despite the fact that we’re locked in Bartles’ consciousness the whole time, Powers saves his Big Reveal for the penultimate chapter, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because it adds a modicum of tension to a story badly in need. The problem becomes one of over-charged expectations, however, and that Big Reveal isn’t big enough — even for Powers the author, who spends too little time describing it before taking us off once again into one of Bartles’ lyrical meditations.
Powell is a gifted writer, but more poet than novelist. The Yellow Birds, which should be better than it is, relies far too much on that lyricism and on metaphor for its resonance, and reads in many ways like a prose poem. The author is good at that part of what he does — taking us into the heart and soul of a psychologically damaged soldier as he struggles to make sense, if sense can ever be made, of the things he’s done in war. The Yellow Birds has a distinct voice, and a powerful one at that.
What it’s missing, as a novel about war, is too much of everything else.
Steve Watkins is professor emeritus of English at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., where he taught creative writing, journalism, and literature of the Vietnam War. His books include The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire, My Chaos Theory: Stories, and the novels Down Sand Mountain and What Comes After. His next novel, Juvie, will be published in Fall 2013 by Candlewick Press. He can be contacted at stevewatkinsbooks.com.