In Kevin Powers's visceral debut novel, The Yellow Birds, the war in Iraq seems driven as much by the relentless intensity of the hot, bright sun as by the suicidal fervor of the insurgents. Private Bartle, 21, and his younger buddy Murph soldier up every day, donning body armor and Goopacks to walk the streets and outskirts of Al Tafar. Whether they live or die seems not a matter of training, strategy or superior technology but of luck.
The Yellow Birds is a meditative war story, more Red Badge of Courage than Catch-22. In chapters that alternately take place during training at Fort Dix, deployment in Al Tafar, discharge through Kaiserslautern and home again, Powers captures their transition from naïve enlistees to war-weary, guilt-ridden veterans.
Powers's sensitive novel reflects the soldier's difficult reentry back home as Bartle holes up in an empty Richmond, Va., apartment while "the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war rolled on." When asked "Hey, how are you?" he wishes he could just tell the truth: "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 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." Fortunately, we have the talented Iraq War veteran Powers to tell his story for him. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.