There’s a long stream-of-consciousness passage toward the middle of former soldier Kevin Powers’ haunting, disturbing and downright gorgeous debut novel about the Iraq War that acts as something of a thesis. “…really, cowardice got you into this mess,” says his narrator, 21-year-old John Bartle, speaking about himself in the second person, “because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you in the cafeteria and hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man…”
The unsettling sentence that quotation comes from is more than a page long. The Yellow Birds takes the form of a fractured narrative, taking place both during before and after the war, hurtling toward and away from the traumatic event at the book’s center, and in the passage in question Bartle is back home in Virginia and reflecting. In the war, his friend Murph has died, and the circumstances surrounding his death have pushed Bartle to the brink, where he will either come to terms with the legal and psychological consequences of his actions, or let those actions define and destroy him forever.
I chose that passage to highlight for a few reasons. First, it states very simply what The Yellow Birds is. It’s a novel about a poet–an awkward, smart, artsy kid who loved books–who enlisted in the Army at seventeen, witnessed the horrors of war, and returned to tell the tale. The second reason I chose that passage is that it’s far from perfect. It’s hard not to get lost in a page-long sentence, and hard not to question whether there wasn’t a more concise and to-the-point way to express the emotions driving the prose. That’s the way The Yellow Birds as a whole is, too. It has its flaws–it moves at a very meandering pace, and Powers sometimes seems to get a bit lost in longer passages, giving the words themselves the run of the show and drawing too much attention to the writing–but to get stuck on these imperfections is to miss the point. The fact is, this sharp little novel’s existence is something of a miracle, and I don’t believe that’s overstating it.
The obvious comparison to be drawn here is Ernest Hemingway’s war novels and, intentionally or not, Powers invokes Hemingway again and again in these pages. But this is much more than facsimile. Powers allows himself a structure that it’s hard to imagine Hemingway using, includes sentences that Hemingway would likely have cut for being too flowery, and gives his narrator the freedom to slip into stream-of-consciousness. It’s brutal, unflinching, and beautiful. We all have our opinions about Hemingway, but one point that can’t be argued is that the man was a worker. He believed in his writing as art, and he strove for the eternal. He slaved over his sentences. Here is Powers describing a firefight:
“Noctiluca, I thought, Ceratium, as the tracers began to show themselves sifted in twilight, two words learned on a school field trip to the tidewaters of Virginia that appeared as I was shooting at the man, paying no attention then to the strange connections made inside my mind, the small storms of electricity that cause them to rise and then submerge, then rise again. A fleeting thought of a young girl beside me on a dock, back there the twilight coming on, the crack of tracers as I shot and shot again, the man crawling from his weapon until he stopped and his blood trickled down the river in its final ebbing tide, brief as bioluminescence.”
By taking as much care with his sentences as Hemingway (or Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson) and aiming to create something eternal, Powers has made a profound statement: our present America is worth this obsessive devotion to detail, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are worth the work it takes to express something so complex as art, and its heroes, the young men and women fighting it, deserve to be elevated in the same way that Hemingway elevated the heroes of his wars.
This book made me sad that Powers had to fight in this war, but very happy that he was there to bear witness and bring this story back with him. It also made me feel patriotic, proud of the tradition of American letters, and proud to be participating as a reader.
The Yellow Birds by Richard Powers is shelved in East Cleveland Public Library’s fiction section under “P”. Come on by library, stop by the reference desk, and I’ll be happy to show you where it is.