Petergiaquinta's Reviews > The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
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I’d like to accord Kevin Powers’ book the same respect I give him and all our vets back from Iraq, but a book isn’t a man and a book doesn’t automatically earn my deference and appreciation. I didn’t dislike the novel, and I tried liking it harder even to the point of starting it for a second read as soon as I finished it. I love its opening paragraphs (shades of Hemingway there, I thought), but after that I had a hard time warming to the book which felt to me as if it was trying too hard in all its earnest attempts to be well liked.

Toward the middle of the novel, as the narrator Private John Bartles finds himself back in America, I found myself drawn better into the story, and Powers’ strength as an author is here as he conveys the difficulties this combat veteran has returning to the world he lived in before Iraq. Bartles holes up in his mother’s house, unable to rejoin the life he left three years before. In a key moment of the novel, Bartles watches his friends at the James River swimming and enjoying themselves; he has been invited to join them, but he has refused and yet goes on his own, watching like a stranger from the other side of the river: “I had become a kind of cripple. They were my friends, right? Why didn’t I just wade out to them? What would I say? ‘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.’ Right.”

And by the end of the novel as the reader finally discovers exactly what is eating up Bartles on the inside, I had almost been won over and was thinking that perhaps I would give the novel five stars, a grudging five stars for sure, but I started thinking maybe it had overcome its shortcomings to earn those five stars. However, as I went back and re-read the book, I settled back into my original way of thinking. Stylistically there are some problems; the tone doesn’t work well for me, and Powers just doesn’t tie up his loose ends very well. (What, for example, is he doing with all the horse imagery? It’s all over the book, but it doesn’t work toward anything as far as I can tell.) The novel has its moments and some of those moments flirt with greatness, but overall the book just doesn’t satisfy me for what I want it to be or, more importantly, what I think the author wants it to be. There’s a really great war novel yet to be written about the dishonest, wasteful clusterfuck lie that is the Iraq War, but The Yellow Birds isn’t quite it.

“The world makes liars of us all,” says Bartles early in the book, and that’s never more true than in a time of war. Powers seems to be reworking that old line, “Truth is the first casualty of war,” throughout The Yellow Birds, and there’s nothing more appropriate than that line when it comes to talking about the Iraq War, a war started by our nation based on a series of horrible lies told at the highest levels of our government and fed to a gullible, grasping American public courtesy of a cowardly, lazy media that has yet to reclaim its credibility. Those lies have staying power, and if you asked the average American about the causes of the Iraq War or what we accomplished there now that we’ve left, he would most likely parrot those lies back to you even today. Or perhaps especially today because those lies have a perverse way of becoming the truth in retrospect, and Powers does something really interesting in his novel with memory and perspective and time as they serve to obscure the truth.

This discussion of truth and the Iraq War is most pertinent to the novel because a tremendous obfuscation of the truth is at the core of this novel. The narrator John Bartles has told a lie; even more so, he’s participated in obscuring the truth to his fellow soldiers, to the Army and to his friend Daniel Murphy’s mother, and the burden of what he has done weighs heavily on him through the rest of his tour in Iraq and will not allow him any measure of peace once he returns home. Powers’ examination of truth and lies and the way memory and time play a role in creating the truth is his novel’s best aspect, and perhaps owes in part some inspiration to the way that Tim O’Brien plays with similar ideas in his novels set in Vietnam, The Things They Carried and Going after Cacciato (and even more so in In the Lake of the Woods). Bartles says of a map of Iraq taped to the wall of his cabin back in America: “That map, like every other, would soon be out of date, if it was not already. What it had been indexed to was only an idea of a place, an abstraction formed from memories too brief and passing to account for the small effects of time: wind scouring and lifting the dust of the plains of Nineveh in immeasurable increments, the tuck of a river farther into its bend, hour by hour, year by year; the map would become less and less a picture of a fact and more a poor translation of memory in two dimensions. It reminded me of talking, how what is said is never quite what was thought, and what is heard is never quite what was said.”

If there are echoes of Tim O’Brien here, the novel also tips its hat to Vonnegut and Heller. Like Billy Pilgrim, Johnny Bartles could be said to have come unstuck in time after the events in Al Tafar, and, as in Catch-22, Powers chooses to tell his story through a disjointed narrative that gradually works itself out as the details of a horrific episode hinted at early in the novel become clearer and the truth of what has happened is unveiled in all its ugliness. And like in Slaughterhouse-Five, Bartles not only keeps looking back just like Lot’s wife (Vonnegut's narrator in SH-5 says he loves her for that and even calls himself a “pillar of salt,” something we might just call Bartles here), but as with Billy Pilgrim he struggles with free will, choice and causality (and just in case you didn’t get it, Powers drops in a “So it goes” for you).

So part of me wants to embrace this book and put it on the shelf with O’Brien and Heller and Vonnegut, but I don’t think I can quite do it. The Yellow Birds should be read as we in America try and come to terms with the lies told by our government and the terrible destruction unleashed by this ridiculous war, but I think there will be another better novel written in the future that better captures the cost of this terrible war and its horrific absurdity. Maybe Powers himself will be the one to write it...
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Reading Progress

June 11, 2013 – Shelved
June 11, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
July 10, 2013 – Started Reading
July 13, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Amanda (last edited Jul 19, 2013 06:22AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amanda My sentiments exactly. This novel may have one of the most perfect opening paragraphs in all of literature, but in some ways that set it up for failure. I measured every sentence, every image, every emotion against that first paragraph and none of it measured up to the poetic brutality captured in the introduction. Like you, I thought the scenes of John's return home--his alienation, his mother's obvious pain at realizing she has lost her son to war though his physical self returned to her--were the most poignant in the novel. (And the "so it goes" was a heavy-handed, too obvious nod to Vonnegut.)

While the novel didn't quite live up to the hype for me, I still look forward to reading a great novel from Powers.

message 2: by Petergiaquinta (last edited Jul 19, 2013 06:52AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Petergiaquinta So true, and in a way I feel kind of bad for not liking this book more on its own's as if I'm measuring it against the perfect book it could have been or should have been in my imagination, and that's not exactly fair.

I also kept waiting for the "yellow birds" idea to come together better. The title grabbed my attention as a good title should; the military cadence epigraph provided some shocking context as I open to the first page, but then as I looked for development of the title throughout the book I found little to support it beyond a few random references to birds. Instead, I kept running into horse motifs...again, as with those fantastic opening paragraphs, it's as though Powers started with a brilliant concept but neglected to follow through (again, sigh, as sufficiently as I wanted him to).

Jeffrey Keeten This book had five star moments and three star moments, great imagery. I hope he has an even better novel in him. I expressed in my review that I believe that to be true. Great review! I loved the way you expressed your issues with the novel. At the end of the day if he continues to write I think this will hold up as a pretty good first novel.

Petergiaquinta Jeffrey wrote: "...At the end of the day if he continues to write I think this will hold up as a pretty good first novel."

Oh yeah, without a doubt, it's a brilliant first book. I'm re-reading Vonnegut's first novel at the moment, Player Piano, and The Yellow Birds surpasses it by far. I wonder, though: it took Vonnegut over 20 years before he was ready to write about the Battle of the Bulge, the POW camps in Germany and the destruction of Dresden. Perhaps the shortcomings we see in The Yellow Birds are because it's just too soon for Powers to write that seasoned, more thoughtful novel we (or at least "I") would like to read from him.

Amanda Petergiaquinta wrote: "I wonder, though: it took Vonnegut over 20 years before he was ready to write about the Battle of the Bulge, the POW camps in Germany and the destruction of Dresden. Perhaps the shortcomings we see in The Yellow Birds are because it's just too soon for Powers to write that seasoned, more thoughtful novel we (or at least "I") would like to read from him."

I, too, wondered this as some of the novel seemed to be imitating O'Brien and Vonnegut (and not necessarily intentionally; all great writers are surely inspired by their own personal heroes). Maybe Powers just hasn't found his own voice with which to tell the story of his war because it's still too close. I did see moments where it was clearly all him and those are the moments that really engaged me.

message 6: by £lizabeth (new) - added it

£lizabeth I Have heard realy good remarks an reviews about this book is it true

Petergiaquinta Well...yes and no. I recommend reading it, though. I am hoping the author will follow it up with another novel. We desperately need fiction like The Yellow Birds to help us understand the truth of the war in Iraq.

message 8: by £lizabeth (new) - added it

£lizabeth Thank you for that and i totally agre with u on the Iraq thing

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