The Yellow Birds, By Kevin Powers

This veteran's novel of the Iraq war flies high, but misses too many of its targets
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The Independent Culture

In an ideal world, a novel would solely be judged by the story it tells, rather than the stories which surround it. Kevin Powers's much-vaunted novel of the Iraq war, The Yellow Birds, reminds us that the world is far from ideal. Forming a response to Powers's debut is clouded by the significant noise surrounding it. The author's status as a veteran of the war, and therefore a curio in the American literary world, provides a unimpeachable veracity to the novel; while gushing praise from the likes of Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibí* and Jarhead author Anthony Swofford has already placed it in such decorated company as All Quiet On The Western Front, The Things They Carried and The Naked And The Dead. It comes dressed as an "Important" novel, and with it a certain amount of critical Kevlar. Important it may be, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is a good novel.

Spanning the last half of the decade just gone, The Yellow Birds is narrated by Private Bartle – a nod to Melville's scrivener, perhaps updating his mantra from "I would prefer not to" to "I would have preferred not to" – and covers his experiences in the front line and beyond. In particular, it focuses on the relationship between Bartle and his friend Private Murphy, whom we know dies in Iraq, but not how.

There is some fine, uncluttered and understated writing, especially in the sections that chart Bartle's life post-Iraq. The scene in which Bartle finds himself in an airport bar with just a bartender and janitor for company is a deft and moving set piece; as is the exam he takes to prove his mental fitness for returning to the civilian world. Yet this subtlety and precision is too often abandoned in favour of a reaching for poetic profundity.

This is the novel's primary problem: the writing, instead of heightening the experience of war, proves to be more of a distraction. Bartle is blessed with a seemingly unending knowledge of trees and birds, and cursed to mention them whenever they appear. It makes for an awkward tonal balance: on the one hand down-home wisdom; on the other, a piling-up of similes and metaphors that can make the prose seem clotted.

Powers is to be admired for attempting this fusion of styles, but it does not serve his character or his narrative well enough to be successful. It is quite clear that he is a major talent; but in The Yellow Birds he lacks the consistency and restraint to deliver fully on the promise of importance.