When Kevin Powers came home from serving as a machine gunner in Iraq, people continually asked him, “What was it like over there?”
His answer is his debut novel, “The Yellow Birds.”
The book has been hailed as the first great work of fiction to come out of America’s post-9/11 wars, and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. Poetically rendered, the novel isn’t concerned with troop movements or battles won and lost. It’s about the interior life of its narrator, Private Bartle. The action of the novel takes place in his head, as he grapples with the absurdity and futility of war, and his inability to make sense of it.
When people asked Powers what Iraq was like, he found they didn’t want to know about the tactile or sensory experience on the battlefield. They were looking for insight on the battle-beaten psychological landscape.
“When I thought about that, I guess at some point it occurred to me that people weren’t asking about information on the day-to-day activities of a soldier, because that’s all available,” Powers explains. “You can go online and see what a firefight looks like. … So I thought people were asking me about something else, something about the emotional life over there.”
The book is told in a fractured style that suits its disillusioned narrator, with a jumbled chronology forcing the reader to attempt to piece the story together as Bartle tries to do the same. It centers on Bartle’s relationship with Murph, a fellow private. Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll bring her boy home safe from Iraq. That promise, and its consequences, smolder in Bartle’s head and set “The Yellow Birds” in motion.
There are a litany of horrors in this book, from mutilated soldiers, to conversations about not wanting to be the thousandth serviceman killed in Iraq, to men rubbing Tabasco in their own eyes to stay awake on patrol, along with the requisite hard-ass sergeant and the fatalistic men he leads. Those are interspersed with small natural beauties of the desert, captured in gorgeous prose.
But this is really a book of ideas. It uses the war experience to explore fate, friendship and, most compellingly, how we curate our memories and tell stories to validate our existence.
“The big question that I had was basically, how do we take our experience and assemble it into something that we can use as a way of going forward?” Powers says. “We have to rely on our memory, which is less than reliable — particularly given the extreme nature of Bartle’s experience. I was just trying to figure out, how do you make sense of the senseless?”
In one of the book’s most emotionally precise and powerful moments, a weary Bartle finds himself on leave in a church in Germany, contemplating his untrustworthy mind’s eye: “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”
On this point, “The Yellow Birds” carries on the tradition of the best contemporary war fiction, in similarly terse works that pick apart the fictions of war and memory, like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam classic “The Things They Carried.”
It’s elegant style also recalls the work of Tobias Wolff, the legendary short story writer, memoirist — and fellow veteran — who will join Powers in conversation Friday, Feb. 1 at Paepcke Auditorium to kick off the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series.
Wolff’s work on war includes the novella “The Barrack’s Thief,” the memoir “In Pharaoh’s Army” and short stories like “Soldier’s Joy.”
Powers, 32, says he began reading Wolff, now 67, in high school. But, he didn’t look to Wolff or the canon of war fiction as models for “The Yellow Birds.” Powers doesn’t consider himselfs a “war writer,” he says, and wouldn’t peg Wolff to any one subject either.
“I generally don’t distinguish too much, as far as the subject matter,” Powers says, “but he’s an incredible writer and someone I admire.”
Powers, a Virginia native like his narrator, enlisted in the Army when he was 17. He served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, before going to college at Virginia Commonwealth University and getting a masters at the University of Texas–Austin.
After encountering the quiet lyricism of Powers’ prose, it won’t surprise readers to learn that he has primarily studied and practiced poetry. He is currently finishing up a collection of poems for publication.
“What is actually on the page [in ‘The Yellow Birds’], very little of that started as poetry, but the ideas that ground the book, those all pretty much originated in poems,” he explains. “I felt like I needed to turn to a larger canvas, something with a little more room to follow them to their logical, or illogical, end.”
The actual incidents in the book aren’t from Powers’ time in the war. But, he says, the emotional core of them began with his experience as a soldier in Iraq, and a veteran at home.
He didn’t write while he was overseas, though he’s been writing since childhood and knew he would put his war on paper eventually.
“I started writing poems again pretty much right after I got home,” he says. “Sometimes I would write about the war and sometimes about something totally unrelated. Gradually, I started to take notes, as these questions were coming up in the war poetry I was writing, and I realized that I wanted to dedicate a big project to this.”
The novel gives us Bartle in training, at war, at home afterward, and in Europe on leave and AWOL. Coming home he has something like post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to connect with family or friends, withdrawn and haunted. At one point he seethes as people insist on buying him drinks as a thanks for his service.
“For me one of the big challenges that I found during the process of writing it was trying to figure out a way that everyone who read it would understand that the process of coming home is equally as dangerous as the war itself,” he says.
Perhaps more dangerous. According to the most recent statistics, the number of suicides in American veterans jumped 15 percent last year to 349, exceeding combat deaths in 2012.
This is a timely read from an immense talent, as our wars end and our veterans reintegrate into our communities. And Powers’ masterful narrative voice is one we’ll be hearing for years to come.
In Conversation With Tobias Wolff
Presented By The Aspen Writers’ Foundation
Friday, Feb. 1
Winter Words 2013
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words is a series of readings and talks featuring some of the most prominent writers in contemporary literature. Below is the schedule for the rest season’s events. All are at Paepcke Auditorium and start at 6 p.m.
Téa Obreht in conversation
with Seth Fishman
Thursday, Feb. 7
Award-winning novelist Téa Obreht is the young, bestselling author of “The Tiger’s Wife,” winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. Seth Fishman is the literary agent who discovered her.
Wednesday, Feb. 20
Environmental writer Gretel Ehrlich is the author of 13 books including “The Solace of Open Spaces.”
Karen Russell in conversation
with Elissa Schappell
Monday, March 4
Bestselling writer Karen Russell is the author of the novel “Swamplandia!,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and nominee for the Orange Prize. Elissa Schappell is the author of the novel “Blueprints for Building Better Girls” and the co-founder and editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House.
Friday, April 12
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the the New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club 2.0 phenomenon “Wild,” a memoir about her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.