2012 National Book Award finalist in Fiction: Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds
November 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through 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.
Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way. (e-book p. 6, beginning of Ch. 1)
Each generation produces its own soldier narratives. The 1920s had the “Lost Generation,” drained of optimism and embittered by the seemingly-pointless slaughter within the trenches; this was most eloquently expressed in novels such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, John Dos Passos’ The Three Soldiers, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. World War II inspired Joseph Heller’s satirical comment on the US Army’s “chickenshit” regulations, Catch-22 and Norman Mailer’s gripping The Naked and the Dead. While the Korean conflict did not produce classic literature on par with the previous two wars, the Vietnam War brought forth a flood of memoirs and cinematic experiences like Apocalypse Now that illustrated the ambushes and disillusionment of soldiers real and fictitious alike.
A little over eleven years after the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts began, the first narratives on that two-front “war on terror” are beginning to emerge. One of the first, if not the first, novels written by a soldier from those conflicts, Kevin Powers’ National Book Award-nominated The Yellow Birds, appears to present this current generation’s own take on the soldier narrative. The Yellow Birds is a poignant look at how the still-current wars have managed to shatter the narrator Private John Bartle’s life, through comrades lost, civilians killed in ambuscades, and the dull, growing realization of the meaningless of it all.
The Yellow Birds jumps in time, from September 2004 Al Tafar, Ninevah Province in Iraq to December 2003 in Fort Dix, New Jersey to a rotation in Kaiserslautern, Germany in March 2005 back to Al Tafar to Virginia in 2005 and then back and forth in the 2004-2005 timeline until the concluding chapter, set in April 2009 at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It is a look at how the war affects its soldiers, consuming their humanity, spitting out shells of lives, some of which have been corrupted by the violence they’ve experienced/had to inflict. Powers does a very good job capturing this shift in view, from the noble (such as when Bartle promises the mother of a younger friend, Murph, that he would protect them; quickly we learn that he is unable to keep this promise) through the cynical (the observation that the candy being tossed to the children in the streets of northern Al Tafar will be food tossed to those who may be planting the next IED) to violence (which lands Bartle in military prison). There is nothing simple about war and while the general impact on the soldiers may be similar, the particulars in which they are affected vary from conflict to conflict. Powers’ narrative feels “fresh” because he imbues with what he experienced as a machine gunner in Iraq during the early years of the occupation; it has the feel of an alternate autobiography.
Powers’ prose often verges on the poetic; this is not surprising, considering his graduate degree in poetry. For the most part, his careful balancing of evocative description with a faithful reproduction of soldier talk (including references to “fucking the dog” and “it’s a real goat fuck”) works, as he delves into Bartle’s mind with a precision of voice that belies the fact that The Yellow Birds is his debut novel. However, there are a few occasions where a plainer, less adorned narrative voice might have availed him more in capturing the raw, visceral emotions that Barth feels. Although they do not occur frequently enough to derail the carefully laid-out psychological minefield of Bartle’s life, the reader may find herself knocked out of the narrative just enough in processing the lush prose that the flow of the narrative falters just enough every now and then to be noticeable.
Despite these occasional narrative hiccups, The Yellow Birds is a very good novel, one that seems to bode well for Powers’ future as a novelist. Yet the occasional beginner’s mistakes, such as not having total control of the narrative flow, instead choosing to elaborate further than is strictly necessary, are those that can be easily corrected in future novels. However, these shortcomings do stand out in comparison to the other National Book Award finalists, making The Yellow Birds a middling contender in a very stacked field.