Little, Brown and Company, 2012
“You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes.”
From its powerful first sentence, "The war tried to kill us in the spring" to the last harrowing page of this novel, Kevin Powers offers his readers haunting images of the war in Iraq. The battles, however, don't stop for army Private John Bartle just because he leaves Iraq; they continue long after his return home, where reminders of loss and of his wartime trauma are everywhere. Spanning a six-year period of time, moving back and forth between Iraq and the US (with a brief stint in Germany), the frame for this story is built on a promise Bartle made to the mother of a friend and fellow soldier named Daniel Murphy, that he'd bring him back home to her. Even though he outwardly assures his sergeant that the promise wasn't a "big deal," and that "he was just trying to make her feel better," inwardly, Bartle takes it very seriously. Reflecting back on not only his Iraq experience but what happened to him afterward, Bartle's story unfolds little by little, growing darker at each step.
The Yellow Birds sets the reader squarely into Bartle's mind as the trauma of the war begins to slowly but steadily consume him. As the novel opens, Bartle, 21 and Murphy, 18, are on a rooftop in the Nineveh province town of Al Tafar. Part of their time is spent obsessing over the numbers of fatalities, viewing each death as "an affirmation" of their own lives. They're fixated on trying not to become casualty number 1000, a number they'd chosen because they couldn't think beyond it, not understanding at the time that "the list was limitless." But the mortars, the IEDs, the body bombs, whizzing bullets and the general randomness of who dies and who lives eventually begin to take their respective tolls, especially on Murphy, who starts to become unhinged, little by little. Looking back on it, Bartle notes that he should have been able to see when Murphy had started moving toward the edge, thinking that if he
"...could figure out where he had begun to slide down the curve of the bell that I could do something about it. But these are subtle shifts, and trying to distinguish them is like trying to measure the degrees of gray when evening comes. It's impossible to identify the cause of anything and I began to see the war as a big joke, for how cruel it was, for how desperately I wanted to measure the particulars of Murph's strange new behavior and trace it back to one moment, to one cause, to one think I would not be guilty of."
In a flash of insight, however, Bartle realizes that the joke was on him as he realizes:
"...how can you measure deviation if you don't know the mean? There was no center in the world. The curves of all our bells were cracked."
What Bartle experiences in his slice of the Iraqi war remains with him as he returns home -- and here is the crux of this novel -- the lesser-known story of all wars, that of the survivors and their difficulty settling back down to a "normal" civilian life once they've made it home.
Powers excels in detailing the psychological tolls of war. He's been to Iraq, so he would know about the randomness and unpredictability of daily life, the missions where the same ground is being taken and retaken, the contemptuous commanders who wish them well and in the same breath remind them that they won't all be coming back, the constant lack of sleep, the pleasure of oblivion in a bottle of Wild Horse whiskey. Bartle lives all of this experience, and can't wait to get home, but even there, his struggles continue as he tries to find some measure of peace in a place where even the noise of a train can be a frightening reminder, in a place where he finds he has become unmoored, set adrift. Well meaning friends, family and other acquaintances make Bartle feel like he's "being eaten from the inside out" when they offer him their thanks and appreciation; what they don't understand is that with each pat on the back he feels increasingly more wretched. Solitude becomes him; in the dark corners of his mind, Bartle retreats into a hellish state of mind:
“You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes.”Placing the reader into Bartle's troubled and very frail but altogether human psyche right away is a great move on the author's part, offering a keen sense of immediacy to the reader as the story unfolds. Bartle's emotions become our emotions at some level, especially in his powerful stream-of-consciousness outpourings and his honesty, which at times just cuts through you like a knife. His darkness is something we want him to escape but at the same time it is so acute that we can't help but to want to explore it further. Powers' beautiful language often heightens these feelings, although truthfully, it often edges close to overpowering what's going on with the characters. There are several places you want to engage more with Bartle's troubled soul less than you want to focus on the author's writing.
I am absolutely fascinated with war fiction, and I'm happy to see novels starting to come out of the Iraqi war experience. If you're looking for an answer to the question of "what's it like over there?" well, you'll find some measure of the experience in The Yellow Birds, but even as the author takes his readers onto the rooftops and into the streets of Al Tafar and into the darkness hiding the unknown, he takes more of a minimal approach to the actual fighting, concentrating more on trauma -- both during and after the war. Sometimes the language is overpowering and cluttered, as if Powers is just dying to give his work more of a poetic flavor, and you end up focusing on the language rather than what he's trying to convey underneath it. However, for the most part, The Yellow Birds is a well-written journey through one man's mind as he tries to battle his ghosts and find the will to continue. Recommended.