Canary in a minefield
Kevin Powers wanted to write about what it was like for US soldiers in Iraq. Photo: Kate Geraghty
THE title of Kevin Powers' debut novel comes from a marching song he learnt on manoeuvres with the US Army. ''A yellow bird/ With a yellow bill,'' it goes, ''was perched upon/My windowsill./ I lured him in/ With a piece of bread/ And then I smashed/His f---ing head …''
The lines, which looped round and through his 2004 tour of Iraq, snagged unshakeably in his mind; as he was writing the novel, the bird - suckered in then set upon - came to stand for ''the lack of control soldiers have over what happens to them''. ''The war proceeds, no matter what you think or do; it's an entity unto itself. You're powerless, and powerlessness itself becomes the enemy. That was my emotional experience of the war. The idea of the bird resonated with the core of what I was trying to get at,'' the writer says.
The Yellow Birds landed in bookshops in September off the back of a wave of hype that began to build with the reports of Powers' lucrative deal with Little, Brown and crested with reviews comparing its author to - among others - Tim O'Brien, Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway.
It tells the story of Private John Bartle, who grows up in small-town Virginia, signs up to get out and is shipped off to Iraq's Nineveh province to play his part in his country's 21st-century war theatre. Attempting to impose meaning on the conflict's senseless sprawl, Bartle fastens on a promise inadvertently given to the mother of his friend, Murph - younger, softer, less robust - that he would ''bring him home''. It's a promise he can't keep.
The novel unfolds along two intercutting timelines: a superstitiously hopeful before, when Bartle and Murph hold their own against horror by deploying a kind of magical thinking in which ''if we remained ordinary, we would not die'', and a bleak and blasted after, in which Bartle must come to terms with the guilt of losing Murph and the way his death reduced their carefully cultivated shibboleths to dust.
As war novels go, The Yellow Birds is a triumph, mining the conflict in Iraq to investigate universal questions of the extent to which we are in control of our lives; the degree to which we are capable of exercising free will. As debuts go it's better yet, with an opening that is arresting and beautiful. And there's no question that Powers - 31, army veteran, fresh off the master's program - is himself a compelling proposition: if it's a truism that most first novels are autobiographical, it is also true that some resume´s are more equal than others, and reviewers have been quick to ferret out the points at which Powers and his narrator overlap.
Powers - in person thoughtful, diffident, intriguingly tattooed - is happy to acknowledge their shared ''biographical and geographical details'', although he ''didn't lose a friend the way Bartle did''. But he's keener by far to talk about where their inner lives intersect.
''The core of what Bartle goes through,'' he says, ''I empathised with it. I felt those things and asked the same questions: is there anything about this that's redeeming; does asking in itself have value? The story is invented, but there's a definite alignment between his emotional and mental life and mine.''
Powers was just 17 when he enlisted. ''I wasn't a good student in high school,'' he explains. ''I wanted to go to college but they weren't exactly beating down my door to offer me admission, and it's so expensive in the US. If you join up for a period, the army will pay your school and provide a stipend.''
There were other reasons, too - a family tradition of military service (Powers' father and grandfathers served, and his uncle was a marine), as well as the purely geographical imperative of growing up in the American south, from which the bulk of the US Army is drawn. ''And then there was just being 17: the attraction of adventure; doing something different. I hadn't spent much time outside of a very small area of Virginia before.''
He served from February 2004 to March 2005. On his return, honourably discharged, he drifted: working for a while at a credit card company (''less than satisfying''), spending a summer framing houses with his carpenter brother, taking some college courses at night. ''I did a bunch of things. But at a certain point I made a decision: what I needed to do was really try to write. The process took three or more years; I had help from some professors who encouraged me to look into graduate school, and I managed to get a place at the University of Texas.''
Most of the book was written there, several years on from the events that fired it. ''I think I had to come to terms with my own experience before I was able to contend with it in writing,'' Powers says. The Yellow Birds is his answer to the wider question, put to him repeatedly on return to civilian life, of ''what it was like over there''.
He set out, he says, with the aim of ''seeing if it would be possible to paint a portrait of the war looking out from inside of this one soldier''; the focus of the book, as a result, is tight and personal, veering back and forth between soaring, saturated descriptions of light and dust, minarets and hyacinths, and the all-out screaming horror of the war. He switches, sometimes mid-sentence, until the country's two aspects become compounded for the reader as they are for Bartle, blending and overlaying each other in a woozy mix that leaves you sick and giddy and gasping for air. What's more, unusually for a novel about the war, almost half of it is set away from the battlefield, in a prosaic Richmond of school buses and muddy riverbanks that Bartle, battle-dazed, sees as if through a pane of glass.
''There have been stories recently that the number of veteran suicides has now surpassed the battlefield casualties,'' Powers says. ''I wanted to show the whole picture. It's not just: you get off the plane, you're back home, everything's fine. Maybe the physical danger ends, but soldiers are still deeply at risk of being injured in a different way. I thought it was important to acknowledge that.''
Was there any sense of exorcism in the writing? ''Certainly there were moments of satisfaction, where I felt like, 'Ah, that's what that is; that's what I've been feeling: the words I've put in Bartle's mouth, that I hadn't been able to articulate before.'''
Did the war, then, make him a writer, or simply give him something to write about? ''I'd always written, though I didn't think of it as anything other than a secret hobby. But I suppose what the war did was free me from the fear of failure. It gave me licence to give it a go.''
■ The Yellow Birds is published by Sceptre at $26.99.