Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds.. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
For some years now I have been wondering when we might start seeing the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By literature, I mean something akin to the prose and poetry that emerged a decade or so after the Great War of 1914-18. A goodly number of memoirs have been published and some have great merit, such as Patrick Hennesy's Junior Officer's Reading Club. Some journalists have also written books whose literary quality is remarkable, such as Dexter Filkins' The Forever War. But where is the poetry and the novels which might be compared to Wilfred Owens and Seigfried Sassoon, or is it too soon?
Last week in our local public library my wife found a novel in the new Hot Picks section, and told me I had to read it. I immediately noticed the cover blurb from novelist Tom Wolfe saying that The Yellow Birds was "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars". Wolfe sold me on reading this novel with that one comment, and while he set the bar pretty high and comparisons are easy, I think this book may stand the test of time as an important war novel of the period.
The other thing that caught my attention from the dust jacket was the author bio, which sold me on Kevin Powers as someone who might be superbly equipped to be a literary voice comparable to an Owen or Remarque. Powers was a enlisted infantryman in the US Army who served in Iraq in 2004-05. He went on to earn a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was the Michener Fellow in Poetry. You can here an interview with Powers on NPR's wonderful Dianne Rehm show here.
I won't say much more because the plot is complex and I don't want to spoil it, but the quick summary is that it followers two young US soldiers in the worst parts of the Iraq war. The novel jumps back and forth in time, and has a lot to say about the effects of war on the psyche. Anyone wanting to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the debilitating way that it traps soldiers in the past should read this book. Powers writes prose like a poet, albeit a young poet. Some passages struck me as overwrought, but much of the novel, even the combat scenes, has a lyrical, even dreamy quality which strangely accentuates rather than conceals the brutality of the subject.
As an example of the literary quality of the book, I offer this passage, which also gets the Mad Padre's Award of Language Play Of The Week for the way in which it develops the metaphor of a stone into a complex meditation on memory and alienation.
Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if in any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind's mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it's hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust that hung and hovered over Nineveh even before it could be recalled and longed for, young and unformed as it was, already broken by the time I reached the furthest working of my memory. I was going home. But home, too, was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the better portion of myself as one among the innumerable grains of sand, how, in the end the weather-beaten stone is not one stone but only that which has been weathered, a result, an example of slow erosion on a thing by wind or waves that break against it, so that the else of anyone involved ends up deposited like silt spilling out into an estuary, or gathered at the bottom of a river in a city that is all you can remember.