Veteran creates character from war experience


Marisa Vasquez

“The Yellow Birds” author Kevin Powers answers questions at his book release party in Lamberts downtown Tuesday evening. Powers is an Iraq War veteran and alumnus of the UT Michener Center for Writers.

Henry Clayton Wickham

As he takes a drag off his cigarette, dressed in a purple, polka-dotted tie, Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers looks put-together on the eve of his literary debut. In a half-hour, he will head inside to regale a crowd with the war story of his narrator, Private Bartle.

But if Powers tells a story of courage in his acclaimed first novel, it isn’t a traditional one. War, in the words of his narrator, is “the great maker of solipsists.”

“How are you going to save my life today?” is the question. Bartle says, “Dying would be one way.”

“The Yellow Birds” is a story of friendship as well as a harrowing portrait of war as a psychological experience. Throughout the novel, Powers stays locked onto the perspective of his first-person narrator Bartle as he struggles to make sense of his friend Murph’s death and the numb horror of combat — of witnessing death to a point where “only the animals make you sad.” In its relentless psychological precision and “the torturous inner space” it creates, “The Yellow Birds” has more in common with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” than war classics like “Saving Private Ryan.”

In part, the novel is Powers’ stab at the near-impossible question veterans are often asked: what was it like out there?

“I tried to ground the book in the emotional reality of war,” Powers said. “Everybody understands what it is like to be afraid and angry and confused.”

Yet, most don’t understand as well as Private Bartle, for whom the lurking “hajjis” and roadside bombs pose an existential as well as physical threat. Bartle is haunted by his own powerlessness in a war where the incoming alarm warns of events that have already occurred and combat often seems like an exercise in futility.

On the eve of an engagement, Bartle describes the incessant rhythm of the desert war, which lacked “the destination and purpose” of his grandfather’s: “We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always had … Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops.” The great irony of the work is that when the machinery of war falters and Bartle is finally presented with a choice, it is an awful one. His decision will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Powers, who grew up in a rural town near Richmond, Va., joined the Army when he was just 17 and served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

“There’s an unofficial tradition of military service in my family,” Powers said, “So it seem[ed] like a pretty reasonable option given the fact that I was a basically terrible student.”

Powers says he drew from his own war experience when envisioning the book’s events, characters and setting; however, his experiences differed vastly from Private Bartle’s.

“The intensity level of my experience wasn’t the same, but I had these sorts of moments of confusion,” Powers said. “Writing was difficult at first. I needed to get to a point where I had some kind of imaginative, critical and emotional distance. Once I got to that point, I think the book really started to take shape.”

“Soldiers are as diverse a group as you’ll find,” Powers said to the crowd at his reading last Tuesday. With his philosophizing and poetics, Private Bartle is by no means ordinary, but he is similar to many other veterans, perhaps, in that he fights some of his toughest battles alone after his Iraq tour.

Powers’ account of the messy aftermath of military service is as gripping as the novel’s combat scenes. When Bartle returns, torn up with guilt, he spends hours drinking, afraid to face friends who see him as a hero.

“[You’re] taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing,” the character Bartle explains, “But then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever.”

Bartle’s return is a kind of parable about the psychological impact of war and power of memory.

“The closer I got to reconstructing him in my mind, the more the picture I was trying to create receded,” Bartle says as he struggles to understand the events leading up to Murph’s death. “There was simply not enough material to account for what had been removed.” At the end of the novel, Bartle stabilizes and finds a kind of solace in his helplessness. “Everything has a little failure in it,” he says, “and we still make do somehow.”

Printed on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 as: Novel speaks on war