The greater part of the untested men appeared quiet and absorbed. They were going to look at war, the red animal--war, the blood-swollen god.
--The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Ninevah 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 into 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.
-- opening lines of The Yellow Birds- Kevin Powers.
Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds begins in a poem and ends as a novel. Private John Bartle recalls the 10 months he shared with Private Daniel Murphy from boot camp to combat in Al Tafar, Ninevah Province, Iraq, when he was 21 and Murphy just 18. The story he tells spans the days from September 2004 to April 2009, and includes his personal war and its aftermath, what is clinically referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – the shattered self he brings when he returns home.
Lyrical lines (cited above) launch a fragmented meditation on war that sidles before settling into story. So melded, neither form completely cleaves to the other.
That passage full with alliterative spill and shards of images from ancient epics evokes a stripped down version of primordial warrior tales like Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Powers’ “War” contains fragments of beasts and fire-breathing dragons --in rib bones and white eyes. It involves primal activities: praying, eating, lovemaking, birthing and spreading through fire. “War,” as used here, could apply to troops, the enemy or that vaguer nightmare beast men fight within themselves.
Bartle can’t make connections, can only cough up fragments.
So he sidles in and starts with images before settling into story, and even then images are unconnected.
Parallel snowstorms, for example, hold no significance: “At one time you could have asked me if I thought the snow meant something and I would have said yes. I might have thought there was significance to the fact that there had been snow on the day Murph had come into my life and snow on the day I had willed myself into the one that had been taken from him.”
The story only comes in dislocated spurts: a letter sent to Murphy’s mother; boot camp where the violence-indulgent Sergeant Sterling assigns Murph to Bartle’s care: “All right, little man,” he said, “I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and stay there.”; a drunken evening in a German brothel that ends somehow on a riverbank; a salt-sowing ritual from Judges (the book of the Bible) that turns up a body; removing a body bomb from a bridge; Murph showing signs of unraveling.
How and why Murph comes apart drives the plot. The subtler story is how Bartle reconnects. In a telling moment, a visiting reporter asks what war feels like. Murph responds: 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. It’s kind of like that,” he continued “like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.”
In the early chapters, Bartle only suggests outlines of the car wreck, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.
What he does provide is an almost hallucinogenic swirl of imagery – colors of the sky, the orchard, the town, the fires; smells – the stench of trash, sewage, cured lamb and the dead. Like Stephen Crane’s impressionistic vision of the Civil War, writer Powers gives his hyper-vigilant narrator heightened sensory imaging and imprinting along with lowered sensory processing. A dizzying intensity results. Here’s a description of a orchard with a flock of birds: “When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling. The sunlight fell absently through the spaces in the treetops, here and there glistening as if on water from smudges of bird blood and citrus.”
Chapters describing combat events give way to those describing the plane ride and the hero’s welcome, a welcome that only makes him feel like a sham. Home is near Richmond, Virginia, where it’s impossible to ever fit in again.
Finally more than half way through the book, the pieces start coming together like a jigsaw puzzle at last revealing its contours and subject. Rivers and bridges are used as motifs, and it is on a bridge that Bartle reveals a gush of guilt. Bartle who could not connect snowstorms somehow- maybe subconsciously - connects rivers. Once bridged, past and present gallop to the finish. The last third is a rush to reveal the book’s secrets. The jigsaw puzzle’s contours and picture emerge though still some content remains blurred and vague.
Whew, is my response to the ending. I’m glad I stayed with this, though I almost didn’t.
Bartle’s disjointed narrative disorients the reader. What must have been hard to write at times proves hard to read; those early pages seemed tediously vibrant, as if they were going nowhere.
Kevin Powers knows his material. Like Murph, he as 17 when he enlisted and then served in served in the U.S. Army in 2005 and 2006 in Tal Afar, Iraq. After an honorary discharge, he attended college and then earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin.
I can not imagine what his own experience was. I assume he drew on some of it and that of those he knew to create this work of fiction. If he, like so many veterans returning from Iraq and now Afghanistan, suffered even a smidgen of post-traumatic stress, he likely found writing the novel a way to make connections, to process, to heal. Now, he has only to recover from the relative nurturing of his MFA program. He’s already proved he’s a fine writer adding to and drawing from a long tradition of war stories, beginning with the most ancient (also from what is now Iraq), Gilgamesh. As in Gilgamesh he writes of a lost warrior brother – complete with a parallel visit to a watery netherworld; like Crane he mixes vivid impressionism with realism; like Tim O’Brien, his themes include the things and people back home.
I look forward to Powers’ next work, hoping it will spare me the necessary disjointedness of this one.