Book: The Yellow Birds
Author: Kevin Powers
There’s a bone-deep exhaustion in John Bartle, an Iraq veteran. He shuffles around, surviving on depression, beer and more beer. Trying to describe his state of mind, Bartle rambles: “...you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer… everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down … but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose … so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward…”. Bartle’s weariness and disillusionment make him seem old. In actuality, he’s not even 25. A year in Iraq, however, has aged him beyond recognition.
The Yellow Birds is Kevin Powers’s first novel and he has a few things in common with John Bartle. Both are from Richmond, Virginia; both were stationed in Iraq for a year; both were machine gunners. Unlike Bartle, whose life careens off track, Powers returned and wrote a novel.
Bartle’s recollections of the year in Iraq and returning to America ricochet across different time periods. The one touchstone in Bartle’s life is his grief at the loss of his friend, Murph, who comes to embody all the innocence that is crushed in war.
Powers’s descriptions of Iraq are tremendous. The sensory experience of being a soldier — the hollowing out of hope and humanity, the fear, the frenzy and the desperation to stay alive — is described in simple but eloquent language. He manages that rare balance between empathising with the soldier without glorifying or endorsing the brutality. There are neither heroes nor villains in The Yellow Birds. There’s only grief in all its oppressive, spirit-crushing beauty.
At one point, Powers writes of a character in The Yellow Birds, “He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.” Perhaps this novel is Powers’s attempt to do the same in real life. If it is, he’s succeeded.