Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers: Coming to a High School classroom near you (to devastate you)

The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
Little Brown and Company: New York, 2012.
ISBN: 9780316219365

War is not an easy thing to understand, nor is it an easy thing to survive.   In Kevin Powers masterful first novel, Private Bartle has returned from Iraq.  He has not returned unscathed; in fact, he is still in Al Tafar, battling for the city and for his friend, Private Murphy.  Bartle, it turns out, made a promise to Murphy’s mother he could not keep to bring him home.  Under the leadership of the hardened and doubtful guidance of staff sergeant Sterling, the twenty-one and eighteen year-old inseparable privates struggle with the dangers and inhumanity they face in an active war zone.   They are obsessed with the death tally, hoping not to be the 1000th casualty.  Murphy begins to show signs of mental strain, eventually making himself scarce.  What follows is as haunting as the writing is lyrical.  This is a simple, tragic, hugely moving story.  Powers writes of Bartle’s experience with an urgency and truth of that can only be conveyed by someone who knows what it is to live the life of a soldier in combat and under fire.  The words sing with simplicity, sincerity, and a lyricism that makes the heart ache with the vivid detail experienced through Bartle’s eyes, skin, and thoughts.  It is easy to see why this debut novel is receiving as much critical acclaim as it is.  The short length makes it accessible, but the content (and salty solider dialogue if the war related deaths don’t do it for you, hypocritical book banners) places this novel firmly in the for adults/mature readers category.  There is no doubt it will become a staple in advanced high school  English classrooms and summer reading lists  - so high schoolers, brace yoselves!  (And fear not, it’s wayyyyy less all over the place than The Things They Carried.) 
Seriously, high school kids.  You will be reading this.  And adults of the world who like great writing but don’t want to spend fifteen weeks reading a book that you need to start bodybuilding in order to physically lift, well…this is a doozy.  I mean, words do not do the words of Kevin Powers justice.  This guy – well lets just say it was not surprising to turn to the back flap and discover that someone has an MFA in poetry.  Did you see the adjectives I used above?  Haunting? Lyical? Simple?  Sincere? Hardened? Urgent?  Truth?  Are those all adjectives?  I don’t even know.  That’s okay, because I’m not writing important, moving books ala Mr. Powers.   Consider the following excerpt:
The doors opened and we lurched down the gangway toward the bright shine of the airport.   It glowed on the inside, and the curl of small neon letters against white walls and white floors addled my thinking.  My mind clouded over.  I saw a nation unfold in the dark.  It rolled out over piedmont and hillock and fell down the west face of the Blue Ridge, where plains in dark pink duck rested softly under an accretion of hours.  Between the coasts, an unshared year grew like goldenrod and white puffs of dandelion up through the hardpan. (103) 
What can I really say about that without sounding like a third grader trying to make the State of the Union address in lieu of the President?  That dude just made touching down in a crappy airport goose bump producing.  
Mr. Powers, well played on having a two page run on sentence (starting on page 144) that is tremendously heart-breaking, conveying the raw yearning of those who have returned from combat situations to be understood, and the hopelessness of realizing that nobody else gets it.   Devastate me, why don’t you?  It is a rage filled, yet a completely articulate exploration of what I suspect many vets may struggle or identify with.
Moreover, the experiences described here by Powers can’t help but remind of those of other fictional soldiers in real wars, like Yossarin in Catch-22 (yes, I know, I know, that was the June 2012 book club read….and yet it has not appeared yet.  Soon, my people, soon!  I need the PopTart to soldier up and teach me how to teach you how to make the truly foul WW2 delicacy, S.O.S.).  I can almost see Yossarian agreeing with Sterling’s advice to Bartle on page 156, when Murphy has begun to crack up:
If you get back to the States in your head before your ass in there too, then you are a fucking dead man…There’s only one way home for real, Private.  You’ve got to stay deviant in this motherfucker.
I mean…da-yum.  What a devastating truth, huh?  But you know what?  Let me share with you the most dismal true thing I’ve ever read, in the simplest, frankest way I’ve ever seen it conveyed:  “The world makes liars of us all.” (48)
I GIVE UP.  But no, really, you should read this book.  Because then you can all answer the questions I have, or better prepare yourself for the inevitable essay you will have to write after reading this one, kids!  Because I’m too lazy to make anything besides a cup of tea and a list, here is a list.  Tea doesn’t travel well through the Internets.
-       Kids, there is a consistent, deliberate use of the word boys instead of the word men.  Take note.  Make a comment in class.  You are now in your teacher’s good graces.
-       Question: do lady soldiers curse as prolifically as do the dude soldiers?  I’m totally curious now.  Lady soldiers!  Let me know, prolifically!
-       Question:  Do soldiers really call their dress uniform shirts blouses?  Because I’m under the impression that the only people who wear blouses are my grandmothers. 
-       Okay, FINALLY.  There has to be some smart person connection between the canaries that Murphy talks about, and the soldiers experience in Iraq.  I mean, is Murphy a canary?  Or is Bartle telling this story a canary?  Or are we all canaries?  It has to mean something; the book is called The Yellow Birds!  Amirite or amirite?  Kids, if you write your English essay about this biznazz, let us know what your more intelligent young minds come up with.  Seriously.  Help us old people out.   If you make it a two page run on sentence and hand it in, I’ll send you a king size candy bar. 

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