Following the tradition of writers like Tim O'Brien and Norman Mailer, Kevin Powers presents his readers with a first-hand account of war in all of its atrocious glory. Powers served in the U.S. Army and was deployed as a machine gunner in Tal Afar, the northwestern city in Iraq where much his novel The Yellow Birds takes place. One can easily blur the story of twenty-one year old Private Bartle with that of its author - Bart's story is so compelling and raw that it's difficult not to dwell on the very real place from which this novel grew. As The Yellow Birds progresses, it becomes painfully clear how much Bart's time in Iraq has eaten away at him - he'll never be the same after seeing what he's seen. Powers writes with such conviction that a similar fate is in store for his readers: this novel hits so many genuine nerves that much of The Yellow Birds will well outlast its own page count.
The plot is essentially what one would expect in a novel about a young soldier. Private Bartle is ordered by his Sergeant to stay close to another rookie, eighteen year old Private Murphy. Together, Murph and Bart navigate through the fog of war, building a friendship while fighting off exhaustion and mental breakdown.
Where Powers really shines in The Yellow Birds is his management of Bart's timeline and the nonlinear progression of the novel. The book is divided into eleven sections that as a whole progress forward in time, but every other chapter pivots back to that fateful September in 2004. This recurrence is hauntingly effective, as if there's no feasible way for Bart to emotionally get past his time in Iraq. Any progression he makes after his service is instantly negated when the next chapter opens and he's back in Iraq. It's a devastating way to tell a story and exposes in its form some of the greater traumas of military service: instead of a narrative arc, Bart will always live a spiral. He even returns as far as his teenage years in one bout of painful reflection: "cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes..."
At times, Powers finds himself carried away in the occasional flight of poetry: during a scene late in the novel, Sergeant Sterling and Private Bartle are looking for Murph, who had secretly been suffering some great emotional distress and went missing. Peculiarly, Bart narrates for both himself and Sterling: "We imagined the soft blue of his eyes rimmed red with tears and the city appearing bent in the warmth of the evening and the dry breeze blowing the smells of sewage and cured lamb and the cool moisture of the river nearby." It's a beautiful passage, albeit unlikely in its collective whimsy.
But, perhaps there's something more to these moments of overwrought poetics. During one particularly deadly attack, Bart recalls some advice from Sterling: if he wanted to survive he would have "get small and stay small." Physically speaking, this is very good advice, but it seems that Bart, and Powers for that matter, are trying to reverse this idea now that they have made it through the war. Now, there's no reason to stay small. Having survived the worst, Powers is free to inject his memories with as much life as he possibly can. Although the rhapsodic language of The Yellow Birds might result in a slightly hesitant audience, these moments are life-affirming in all their verbosity.