“THE YELLOW BIRDS,” BY KEVIN POWERS
REVIEWED BY CALEB CAGE
November 29th, 2012
The innocuous title of Kevin Powers’ debut novel The Yellow Birds is a reference to a military marching cadence. In its lyrics, as anyone who served in the military in recent decades might know, a peaceful bird is lured into a room and wantonly killed. The cadence is off-putting because of its unusual mixture of poetry, vulgarity, and violence, and because there is no apparent explanation for the acts it describes. Powers’ novel, which is equally poetic, vulgar, and violent, begins to make sense of the obscure cadence it references for the first time.
The Yellow Birds is about Murph and Bartle, two young privates going off to war in Iraq. Murph is young, 18, from West Virginia, and new to the Army. Bartle is older, 21, from Virginia, and has been around the Army for a little longer when Murph arrives. They are different, but their impending deployment equalizes them.
From their southern homes, the areas common to so many of those who fought in these wars, they deploy to Al Tafar, an imaginary city similar to Tal Afar, the area Powers served in his real military experience. Although Tal Afar was the epicenter of the counterinsurgency successes before the so-called Surge, Powers wastes few pages on combat scenes, aimless patrols, or the mundane missions that can characterize so much of these deployments for conventional forces. He opts instead to focus on these two soldiers, the war they faced, and the crude existence they were able to scratch out for a time.
Powers captures his reader by telling his story like it’s a devastating riddle—the kind that forces you to follow his clues even though you are certain that you won’t like what you find. He taunts his reader in several ways, most notably through his chosen chronology. He begins his work in-country so that his readers can meet Murph, Bartle, and his other characters, including the war itself. Chapter two backtracks...
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