‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers: the Novel of the Iraq War

'The Yellow Birds' by Kevin Powers is the novel about the Iraq War that we have been waiting for—and needed—because it finally brings the experience of combat to us as visceral art, not just information, writes Doug Stanton.

09.11.12 9:45 PM ET

Kevin Powers’s unforgettable debut novel, The Yellow Birds, opens with a line that is elegiac, measured—captivating: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” That’s his youthful, weary narrator—“Holden Caulfield” channeled through “John Grady Cole” in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses—speaking to us in a voice that we sense might as well be from the grave, but is—exuberantly—not. John Bartle, age 21, is a soldier in the middle of combat in Iraq and his one job is to stay alive, and he’s made a promise to the mother of a fellow soldier, Murphy, 18, that he would keep him alive, too. It’s the honoring of this promise that propels the book backward and forward in time and across landscapes in Iraq and the U.S. I won’t, of course, tell you how it turns out; but while reading the novel—part elegy, prose poem, and page-turner—you have to remind yourself that this is, in fact, fiction. That’s a compliment and a bravura achievement, in an age when most people you meet at dinner say, “I just don’t read fiction—‘cause it’s not real.”

What Powers achieves in his prose and storytelling is a sense of eternity haunting the margins of one’s own vision as you glimpse the book’s pages, a clarifying of tangled emotions and of vast internal spaces otherwise rendered chaotic by experience into sun-shot prose. He’s written fiction that seems more real than the “real” thing—in this case, nonfiction about the same subject—which is what art is supposed to do. About imminent combat in an orchard, the narrator Bartle recounts, "The world was paper thin as far as I could tell. And the world was the orchard, and the orchard was what came next. But none of that was true. I was only afraid of dying ... When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope ... We stepped carefully, looking for trip wires or any sign that the enemy was there." 

Powers, 31, deployed in Iraq in 2004–2005; a native of Virginia, he had entered the Army at the age 17. In 2012, he received an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow (he also received a B.A. in English, in 2008, from Virginia Commonwealth University). Powers is an artist who was a soldier who lived to tell the tale. One can hear the American poets Richard Hugo and James Wright in his narrator’s autumnal voice. Bartle says, "Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind's mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it's hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of the parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust … " You don’t know quite what to think of Bartle’s war story, so much as you feel it.

Coincidentally or not, and at least tonally, the novel’s opening line is pleasingly reminiscent of the first line of Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country,” also about war—World War 1—and the narrator here, too, is windblown, shell-shocked: “In the fall the war was always there but we did not go to it anymore.” Powers’s novel arrives as a reading experience akin to one you might have had in the early 20th century had you picked up Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry or stopped at the book shop for Hemingway’s In Our Time. Powers is writing out of a once more recognizable tradition—Pablo Picasso’s 1937 “Guernica” after the Spanish Civil War; John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath; Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five after WWII—that instinctively tilts world events toward the light until they refract as art. I don’t know anyone today writing The Grapes of Wrath after the last Wall Street crash. I hope to be corrected.

For worse, in this YouTube/Twitter-of-the-moment age, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become The War, they’ve all run together, everybody’s paying attention to them and nobody’s paying attention to them, and these technologies—TV included—have piped whole oceans of adrenaline and trucked vast smoldering cities into our consciousnesses so that we can review this carnage on our phones while shopping the produce aisle. In other words, this “nonfiction” reality comes at us as a continuous movie—as fiction-like, if we’re even paying attention. One of the thrills of reading Power’s The Yellow Birds is that it’s a “movie” that reads like nonfiction. What is unusual but satisfying is that you have the long-lost sensation of being in the hands—the mind—of an artist who’s taking in reality, shooting it through the fluttering curtain of his own mind, giving you back something—a gift, a story, a rendering, a picture, a sense of the sense of being alive in a time and place—Iraq, the war, the buddy he has to save—as his own humanity is mirrored back to us in shining straps of prose.

Think about it. In an age of unfiltered beer, unfiltered news, and having to listen to every crank prattle on with his/her opinion in the comments section at the end of every newspaper story on the Internet—you hunger for something filtered. You want the artist to order the universe, still the chaos with a sentence as haunting as Matthew Arnold in his poem “Dover Beach,” or as smart as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s a glorious swoon to suspend one’s disbelief. We are creatures of the imagination at the beginning of a century already filling with undeniable horrors—but it has always been thus, right? Drought, famine, genocide, war, but in this age we have such a tonnage of information at a granular level pouring in around us that the info stream approaches the consistency of quick sand. We don’t need anymore “information,” “facts,” “reality.” We need story, and fewer pixels. We need crisp canvas, a brush. Powers’s The Yellow Birds allows us to walk into The War—his war, our war—that has cost so much in so many ways over nearly a decade, in a way so granular and humane that we sense the tragedy of his Bartle and his Murphy as the tragedy itself pushes us down, damn near to the ocean floor, just as the novel’s sentences shoot down for us—as lifelines.