Back Bay Books, 2013
“I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists . . .” Reading that on page twelve was when I knew the The Yellow Birds was a genuine book about war and what it does to people.
Did I want to read further? I wasn’t sure. There would be an exit fee of knowing more about sadness and evil. But it turns out, Powers also wrote about beauty while living in scenes of horror.
The storyline is direct. Private John Bartle, the storyteller, meets Private Daniel Murphy in training camp where they become friends in Sargent Sterling’s unit. They are shipped to Al Tafar during the Iraq War where they are engaged in dangerous daily combat. The first chapter plunges the reader into combat, the dust of the desert, easy deaths of the innocent, fear, craziness and no higher purpose beyond staying alive another hour.
The chapters then go back and forth between Iraq, basic training, and then Iraq and trying to adjust to being back home in the states. A description of Bartle taking his military clothes off before bed when he arrives home was unexpectedly wrenching. The symbolic removal of military life and sinking into the sleep of a civilian was a slip through a veil not understood by people like me.
The Yellow Birds is well-written and often poetic. Only once did I think it was over-written, though I might have just been overwhelmed at this midpoint in the reading.
He grapples with questions of grief and life and never finds a peaceful, releasing answer. A meandering theme is one I have also wondered about. It doesn’t matter. The idea that nothing matters is brought up in several ways, and on this issue Private Bartle and I had times of understanding.
For all Bartle succumbs to in the horror of war, cruelty, senseless deaths, and his participation, he seems, in the end, to begin finding his way back when he writes that he does not want to have deserts or plains to see out his window. He wants trees, any kind, that “fix the earth into parcels small enough that they can be contended with.”