The Yellow Birds: A Novel
226 pages (hardcover)
I should preface this review by saying that I’m not and never have been in the military. Other than my grandfathers (neither of whom spoke much about their service), no one in my family has ever been in the military. I have no idea, therefore, whether the experiences described in this book are accurate or embellished, commonplace or unique, realistic or sensationalized.
But the book’s author, Kevin Powers, “served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar.” This is a fictionalized account that I presume is based at least in part on his own experience. And it is gritty and raw and sad.
The book begins with an epigraph, a couple stanzas from a “Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence,” that serves as a jarring and appropriate opener to this novel:
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head . . .
The Yellow Birds is a non-chronological account of John Bartle (“Bart”), a twenty-one-year-old soldier who deploys to Iraq and then returns home to Virginia. It focuses on his relationship with another soldier, eighteen-year-old Murph.
Before they are deployed to Al Tafar (a fictionalized town in the Nineveh Province), there’s a going-away party. There, Bart meets Murph’s mom. She is despondent about Murph’s deployment and makes Bart promise he’ll take care of Murph and bring Murph back home safely.
In Iraq, Bart and Murph both struggle. There are descriptions, at times graphic, of mortar attacks and death. Bart does his best to keep his promise to Murph’s mother, but he worries he’s failing. Murph starts sitting outside a medic tent during his time off (“[I]t might have been the last habitat for gentleness and kindness that we’d ever know.”). When Bart attempts to console Murph and reassure him (“We’ve got each other.”), Murph responds: “I don’t want to be tight with anyone because of this. Being here can’t be the reason we’re tight. I won’t let it be.”
After his deployment, back in Virginia, Bart faces a new set of struggles. He becomes a hermit. He doesn’t like the way people look at him and talk to him about his service (“I didn’t want to smile and say thanks. Didn’t want to pretend I’d done anything except survive.”):
“Hey how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.”
Rating: 3/5 🐤
This is a tough one to rate. When I began reading the book, I hated the style. Powers was a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, where he got his MFA. His writing is flowery and laden with symbolism, metaphors, and similes:
The rest is history, they say. Bullshit, I say. It’s imagination or it’s nothing, and must be, because what is created in this world, or made, can be undone, unmade; the threads of a rope can be unwoven. And if that rope is needed as a guideline for a ferry to a farther shore, then one must invent a way to weave it back, or there will be drownings in the streams that cross our paths. I accept now, though in truth it took some time, that must must be its own permission.
In addition, the non-chronological storytelling became a bit tedious. About one hundred pages in, I found myself wondering, “OK, already, what happened with Murph?” Not in an “OMG, the suspense is killing me!” kind of way, but in a “Enough already, let’s get to it.” kind of way.
That said, the last fifty or so pages of this book are pretty gripping (and, this is a short one, so that’s roughly the last 25% of the book). And I think this is an honest account of some of the shit military folks have to deal with—from seeing people killed right in front of you (both “enemies” and friends) to dealing with the alienation and post-traumatic stress of returning home. Powers does not sugar coat. This book does not make military service or war look light or fun.
Who should read it: Andy and Jocelyn (i.e., people who serve in the military or whose loved ones serve and thus have a personal perspective on and appreciation for military service, deployment, and war—this would be excellent for a book club with military folks)
One final note: Thank you, Joe, for the recommendation!
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: