Kevin Powers’ searing debut novel, The Yellow Birds, is about one soldier’s death.
As its narrator, Pvt. John Bartle, tells us, there should be nothing remarkable about that event. Describing the months he spends in Iraq in 2004, he says of himself and his fellow soldiers, “We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare. Rare was the bullet with your name on it, the IED buried just for you. Those were the things we watched for.”
But what happens to Bartle’s best friend, Daniel Murphy, is nothing anyone was watching for. Bartle tells us early on that “I didn’t die. Murph did.” But how and why Murph died, and how Bartle struggles to live afterward, is a story both shocking and inevitable.
Bartle — his name an echo of the title character in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, a gloomy man whose response to almost everything is “I would prefer not to” — goes to war already an emotionally guarded man. But he lets down his guard for Murph, who attaches himself like a puppy as their unit is preparing to depart for Iraq. Bartle even makes a promise to Murph’s mother to bring him home to her — a promise he will profoundly regret.
It’s shocking to find out, several chapters into Bartle’s laconically tough narration, how young they are: Bartle 21, Murph just turned 18 and not yet shaving. But, as someone said, you go to war with the army you have — no matter how many of them are boys utterly unprepared emotionally for what they will experience.
The closest thing Bartle and Murph have to a mentor is their sergeant, Sterling, a man born to be a soldier, from his exacting insistence on order and his carefully channelled rage to his imposing physique and blond crewcut.
Bartle tells us, “I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination.” They follow Sterling without question. He is all of 24.
Powers is himself a veteran of the Iraq War, having served as an Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar at the time his novel is set. He returned, went to college, and earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin (a gentler fate than any that befalls his characters), where he was a Michener Fellow in poetry.
The Yellow Birds is a deeply impressive first novel, beautifully structured, its prose spare and lyrical at once. The narrative moves around in time, with chapters set during the monthlong siege of an Iraqi town called Al Tafar alternating with some back in the United States before and after Bartle’s deployment, and a few in other places. It circles ever closer to the truth (if there is one) of Murph’s final days, a truth that proves unbearable for some, and to the revelation of what becomes of Bartle.
Powers’ descriptions of Iraq and of battle scenes are breathtaking. The landscape, bleached of color and peopled by figures that seem more ghostly than living, is the field both of war and of nightmare, slipping in and out of the surreal. The siege is a matter of soul-sucking pointlessness, endless tedium interrupted by terrifying rains of mortar fire. The soldiers fight and die to take the town, then they’re ordered to let the inhabitants return, and then the fight begins again.
The Yellow Birds subtly alludes to other classic books about war, from The Red Badge of Courage to Catch-22 and The Things They Carried. Biblical allusions also resonate throughout the book, from Bartle’s frequent references to their location as that of the ancient city of Nineveh to a scene in which Sterling, after a battle, takes a piece of pound cake from his pocket and offers it to Bartle and Murph: “‘Take this,’ he said. ‘Eat.’”
But salvation is in short supply for these soldiers. Even those who live may feel as if they never truly leave. When Bartle returns to his mother’s home in Virginia, he tells us, “I was disappearing. It was as if I stripped myself away in that darkened bedroom on a spring afternoon, and when I was finished there would be a pile of clothes neatly folded and I would be another number for the cable news shows. I could almost hear it. ‘Another casualty today,’ they’d say, ‘vanished into thin air after arriving home.’”