Monday, April 23, 2018
Features and More

Book review: Iraq war veteran's haunting novel 'The Yellow Birds'

Kevin Powers' searing debut novel, The Yellow Birds, is about one soldier's death.

As its narrator, Pvt. John Bartle, tells us, there should be nothing remarkable about that event. Describing the months he spends in Iraq in 2004, he says of himself and his fellow soldiers, "We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare. Rare was the bullet with your name on it, the IED buried just for you. Those were the things we watched for."

But what happens to Bartle's best friend, Daniel Murphy, is nothing anyone was watching for. Bartle tells us early on that "I didn't die. Murph did." But how and why Murph died, and how Bartle struggles to live afterward, is a story both shocking and inevitable.

Bartle — his name an echo of the title character in Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, a gloomy man whose response to almost everything is "I would prefer not to" — goes to war already an emotionally guarded man. But he lets down his guard for Murph, who attaches himself like a puppy as their unit is preparing to depart for Iraq. Bartle even makes a promise to Murph's mother to bring him home to her — a promise he will profoundly regret.

It's shocking to find out, several chapters into Bartle's laconically tough narration, how young they are: Bartle 21, Murph just turned 18 and not yet shaving. But, as someone said, you go to war with the army you have — no matter how many of them are boys utterly unprepared emotionally for what they will experience.

The closest thing Bartle and Murph have to a mentor is their sergeant, Sterling, a man born to be a soldier, from his exacting insistence on order and his carefully channelled rage to his imposing physique and blond crewcut.

Bartle tells us, "I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me, how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my ear, 'Shoot these hajji f---s!' " They follow Sterling without question. He is all of 24.

Powers is himself a veteran of the Iraq War, having served as an Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar at the time his novel is set. He returned, went to college and earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin (a gentler fate than any that befalls his characters), where he was a Michener Fellow in poetry.

The Yellow Birds is a deeply impressive first novel, beautifully structured, its prose spare and lyrical at once. The narrative moves around in time, with chapters set during the monthlong siege of an Iraqi town called Al Tafar alternating with some back in the United States before and after Bartle's deployment, and a few in other places. It circles ever closer to the truth (if there is one) of Murph's final days, a truth that proves unbearable for some, and to the revelation of what becomes of Bartle.

Powers' descriptions of Iraq and of battle scenes are breathtaking. The landscape, bleached of color and peopled by figures that seem more ghostly than living, is the field both of war and of nightmare, slipping in and out of the surreal. The siege is a matter of soul-sucking pointlessness, endless tedium interrupted by terrifying rains of mortar fire. The soldiers fight and die to take the town, then they're ordered to let the inhabitants return, and then the fight begins again.

The Yellow Birds subtly alludes to other classic books about war, from The Red Badge of Courage to Catch-22 and The Things They Carried. Biblical allusions also resonate throughout the book, from Bartle's frequent references to their location as that of the ancient city of Nineveh to a scene in which Sterling, after a battle, takes a piece of pound cake from his pocket and offers it to Bartle and Murph: " 'Take this,' he said. 'Eat.' "

But salvation is in short supply for these soldiers. Even those who live may feel as if they never truly leave. When Bartle returns to his mother's home in Virginia, he tells us, "I was disappearing. It was as if I stripped myself away in that darkened bedroom on a spring afternoon, and when I was finished there would be a pile of clothes neatly folded and I would be another number for the cable news shows. I could almost hear it. 'Another casualty today,' they'd say, 'vanished into thin air after arriving home.' "

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

Image of boots from iStockphoto.com

Comments
Review: American Stage hits ‘The Producers’ out of the park

Review: American Stage hits ‘The Producers’ out of the park

ST. PETERSBURG — Without question, Mel Brooks’ The Producers carved a more indelible mark than most of the musicals in the entire genre of throwaway musicals it parodied.The creator of Get Smart and Blazing Saddles not only co-wrote the adaptation of...
Updated: 7 hours ago
It’s a boy! Kate Middleton gives birth to third royal baby

It’s a boy! Kate Middleton gives birth to third royal baby

LONDON — For Kate, the wait is over. The Duchess of Cambridge gave birth Monday to a healthy baby boy — a third child for Kate and Prince William and fifth in line to the British throne.The couple’s Kensington Palace office announced news of the birt...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Taste test: vanilla wafers

Taste test: vanilla wafers

When it comes to cookies, our judges are all in. When it comes to vanilla wafers, most of them admitted to reaching for the familiar Nilla Wafers in the bright yellow box. Surprisingly, they liked the well-known brand least of the seven wafers sample...
Published: 04/23/18
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Published: 04/20/18
In Bhutan, gross national happiness more important than GDP

In Bhutan, gross national happiness more important than GDP

Associated PressLAYA, BhutanPrayer flags whip in the wind, flying across steep valleys and roads. Buddhist temples, stupa shrines and majestic fortresses called zhongs dot the landscape. Giant water-powered prayer wheels spin from tumbling falls. Far...
Published: 04/20/18
The Holocaust connection that makes the Florida Orchestra’s Verdi ‘Requiem’ concert special

The Holocaust connection that makes the Florida Orchestra’s Verdi ‘Requiem’ concert special

The Florida Orchestra puts another exclamation point on its 50th season with Verdi’s Requiem, this weekend’s concert series, a major presentation of an iconic work. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem debuted in 1874 but took on a new layer of signif...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
On its 20th anniversary, Disney's Animal Kingdom credits conservation with longevity

On its 20th anniversary, Disney's Animal Kingdom credits conservation with longevity

ORLANDO — When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened 20 years ago, it was light on thrills and heavy on conservation. On April 22, 1998, Earth Day, the Orlando park had a single thrill ride, Countdown to Extinction, and a handful of shows like ...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
On 4/20, a Tampa distillery is releasing hemp-infused Touch Vodka

On 4/20, a Tampa distillery is releasing hemp-infused Touch Vodka

TAMPA — Appropriately enough, a local distillery is releasing a hemp vodka on Friday, 4/20.After more than a year of planning and research, Fat Dog Spirits — the parent company of Touch Vodka — is releasing its new Nirvana vodka.Served in 750-millile...
Published: 04/19/18
Graze all day at Armature Works

Graze all day at Armature Works

TAMPA HEIGHTS— Graze 1910 upholds the comfortable and relaxing, yet elegant setting of Armature Works with its "comfort food" offerings and dedication to serving breakfast all day."It’s the way I eat. I graze all day," said owner Raymond "Ray" Menend...
Published: 04/19/18
Tampa Bay disciples of 'Wild Wild Country' guru remember Oregon commune

Tampa Bay disciples of 'Wild Wild Country' guru remember Oregon commune

SPRING HILL Joe Lemieux sat on the cream sofa near several relics from another era in his life, out of place in this retiree’s pastel-tinged living room and brought into the morning light specifically for this occasion. There was a beaded nec...
Published: 04/19/18