The Hemingway Crush

Theo Tait

  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
    Sceptre, 230 pp, £14.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 4447 5612 8

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.

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