The book world has a tendency to go weak at the knees where men of action, and particularly soldiers, are concerned. If Dr Johnson was right that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, then imagine the havoc the idea plays with book reviewing types, who spend whole days on the sofa and call it work. At any rate, the reaction to The Yellow Birds – the first novel by Kevin Powers, who enlisted at 17 in the US army and served in Iraq in 2004-5 – has been fairly hysterical. The book has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, The Red Badge of Courage, The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried: practically every classic war novel in the American canon, along with Cormac McCarthy and, for good measure, the Iliad. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and has won various other prizes and accolades. A lot of this, I suspect, was based on respect for the writer’s experiences rather than the words on the page. ‘Tempering one’s enthusiasm for a vet’s war novel seems, if not unpatriotic, then at least peevish and small-minded,’ Ron Charles wrote in his Washington Post review, before gently hinting at the truth: that this is an interesting novel, and in many ways a good one, which is blighted by some very obvious weaknesses.
The title comes from a ‘Traditional US Army Marching Cadence’, which sets the tone for the novel: Powers alternates lyrical, wistful moments with eruptions of extreme violence:
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head …
The plot is simple but momentous, told as a series of fragmented episodes, foreshadowing the pivotal tragedy, or exploring its traumatic aftermath, moving inch by inch towards the horror at the centre of the story. John Bartle – Bart – is an infantryman from Virginia serving in the Sunni triangle at the height of the Iraqi insurgency: ‘Al Tafar’ stands in for Tal Afar, where Powers was a machine-gunner with an engineering unit (‘Up north, near Syria. Like a hajji proving ground up there. Gets real fucking heated sometimes’). He has a smaller, younger comrade, Daniel Murphy – Murph. Their sergeant, Sterling, is a semi-deranged martinet who excels in ‘death and brutality and domination’. We later learn that, during training, Sterling has identified Murph as someone in need of protection: ‘All right, little man,’ he tells him. ‘I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there. Do you understand?’ During the celebrations before they are shipped out to Iraq, Murph’s mother corners Bartle and extracts an ominous promise from him: ‘I promise I’ll bring him home to you,’ he tells her. During the opening scene, the fourth day of a rooftop operation, US casualties are nearing the thousand mark. When Bart looks back on it later, Murph is already ‘half a ghost’.
Like many first novels of a manly variety, The Yellow Birds labours under the weight of a massive Hemingway crush. This doesn’t manifest itself in the obvious way, though there are occasional lapses into parodic Hemingwayese (‘And there were hamburgers and French fries and we were glad’). Rather, what Powers has taken from him is the liturgical solemnity, the biblical cadences, the ‘one true sentence’ ideal: each line feels agonised and sweated over. More specifically, he has inherited Papa’s portentous earth-talk (‘beneath the willows and dogwoods that claimed that corner of the bank’s good brown earth’ etc) and, as in A Farewell to Arms, tells a story about war while paying scrupulous attention to the natural world. The opening of The Yellow Birds explicitly emulates that novel’s first chapter, by describing the passing of the seasons in a war zone. But instead of writing simple declarative sentences, Powers’s are long, ornate and filled with rhetorical flourishes. This is the book’s first paragraph, which has been much admired:
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 in 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.
The problem is that Powers tries to maintain the high style throughout, and the result is a great deal of overwriting. Much of the prose is pompous and overwrought: Powers is the kind of writer who doesn’t say ‘because’ if he can say ‘for’, who doesn’t say ‘fixed’ if he can say ‘affixed’. Strained ‘poetic’ similes abound: ‘like an unpractised choir’; ‘like a tattered quilt of fallen stars’. When he shoots a man near the Tigris, Bartle says: ‘In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth’ – meaning that his memories of swimming in the James River are ruined. The Yellow Birds is littered with writing-school maundering, and grand gestures that bellyflop. Unearned bombast is everywhere. Chapters begin with lines like: ‘Then it was spring again in all the spoiled cities of America.’ This is a fairly characteristic passage, describing Bart’s return to America at the end of his tour of duty:
Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if in 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 those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust that hung and hovered over Nineveh even before it could be recalled and longed for, young and unformed as it was, already broken by the time I reached the furthest working of my memory. I was going home. But 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 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.
This is a trainwreck, from the first inept and imprecise simile, to the tin-eared rhythms, to the final incoherent thought. You see this sort of thing a lot in The Yellow Birds: image leads to thought leads to image, while the narrator’s contrived poetic diction drowns out any meaning. At the end of this passage you have, really, no idea what Powers is on about. What, for instance, are the ‘small arrangements’ that make a life in the third sentence? Why should the heart be ‘at least’ something that spills out between those parentheses? What on earth does ‘the else of anyone involved’ mean? Not many first-time novelists would be allowed by their editors to publish writing like this. In general, there’s far too much interior monologue of variable quality, far too little drama and characterisation – far too little sense of the crucial bond between Bart and Murph.
It’s a pity, because there are plenty of good things in The Yellow Birds. Sterling, for instance, who brings a welcome injection of dynamism and humour whenever he appears. When asked ‘that fucking question’ – what’s it like over there? – by Bartle and Murph he starts off by giving them technical tips: ‘Get a steady position and a good sight picture, control your breathing and squeeze.’ When they ask for more, he offers a little parable:
‘Don’t worry so much, ladies. You two hold the tail. Everything’ll be cool.’
‘The tail?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ he responded. ‘Let me fuck the dog.’
As he explains later, in Iraq, his basic philosophy is: ‘You’ve got to stay deviant in this motherfucker.’ The war-zone details are fascinating: the soldiers rubbing Tabasco into their eyes to keep themselves awake on long operations; the Iraqi interpreters wearing hoods to protect their families from insurgent reprisals; the superstitions and intimations about who’s going to die and who isn’t. And when Powers reins in the purple prose and keeps it precise the writing is very good. The whine of incoming mortar makes ‘a bright sound like the sky had become a boiling kettle’. There’s a description of a soldier ‘gut-shot and dying’ that’s hard to forget. His dazed, apocalyptic visions of an Iraqi city in wartime are probably the best thing about the book, with bodies ‘found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life’.
The reader is left with a clear sense of this ‘shitty little war’, where the same small, immensely destructive offensives are fought year after year, where the soldiers scarcely notice their savagery, ‘the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our own presence’. There are also revealing descriptions of the home front: when a traumatised Bartle returns, he’s horrified by the yellow ribbons and pious platitudes from clueless civilians. Powers comes up with some memorable aphorisms too. War isn’t about camaraderie, he says: ‘War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?’ (The books enacts this solipsism: there are only really three characters in it.) And Murph gives a good answer to ‘that fucking question’:
It’s like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not.