James River Blues: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds CoverKevin Powers’ acclaimed The Yellow Birds features many scenes set in Iraq, Germany, and Fort Dix, New Jersey. The latter locale intrigues me, for I served two years at that backwater post and it pleases me to see it made central in an important contemporary war novel. But being from Virginia myself I’m most attracted by the great portions of The Yellow Birds that take place in the Old Dominion. John Bartle, Powers’ distressed narrator, resides across the James River from Richmond before enlisting and just after completing his service, and he ends the novel living in a remote cabin tucked under a western Virginia mountain. The novel’s geography resonates with my own biography. For eight years, I lived with the James River a straight half-mile shot through the woods behind my house and all-in-all I spent the first 22 years of my life in Virginia. In Afghanistan I served alongside members of the Virginia National Guard, which gave me further understanding of the descendants of Virginian plantation gentry and small farm yeomen. All this would be irrelevant if I didn’t in fact detect a certain Virginia-ness permeating The Yellow Birds, a quality that makes it what it is and as effective as it is, a quality rooted in Virginia geography, history, and culture. Let me see if I can explain.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “Condominium Construction on the James Riverfront, Richmond, VA”

To be a Virginian is first to be a product of the soft and beautiful landscape and climate of the Tidewater, Piedmont, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachians, all of it connected by the state’s languid rivers, the most significant of which is the James. Virginia’s gentle terrain and weather seem to conspire to make it physically and psychically hard to get or stay angry. Such natural tonic is corroborated by the impossibly high standards for gentlemanly comportment and achievement set by icons such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lee. To this day, I have trouble imagining a Virginian perpetrating a truly vicious or hurtful act. Even as they are confused by or ignorant of their proud aristocratic tradition, most find it absolutely painful to say no to anyone or not lend a helping hand where needed. To say that such deference makes them wildly vulnerable in the face of a world that is a lot more conniving and harsh than they are is an understatement, which is part of John Bartle’s problem in The Yellow Birds. In all this I speak mostly of white Virginians, for consideration of the state’s tortured history of race relations and its African-American demographic seriously undercut idealization of its white patrician elders while infusing the calm landscape with blood and fire. We can think first of Sally Hemings–desire and denial–and Nat Turner–rebellion and suppression–and then wonder about the contemporary athletic prowess of ferociously competitive African-American Virginia sportsmen such as basketballers Moses Malone and Allen Iverson and football players Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Michael Vick.  Do they represent a modern instantiation of Virginia’s genteel white and gritty black social bifurcation and commingling?

These factors seep into the works of Virginia artists as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe and Patsy Cline and help make them thoroughly unique and rich. Poe and Cline, the sweetest of souls, seemingly doomed to die young, their art works melancholy to the core, tinged everywhere by loss and yearning, haunted by fear and desperation, and deeply wise about pain that comes from within and without. That’s heady company in which to place Powers, and time will tell if the comparison holds up, but it represents a way to begin to understand the lyric morbidity of The Yellow Birds. To my mind, John Bartle’s effort to make sense of his tangled life and deployment is a particularly Virginian response, knowingly sketched by its author, who was raised and went to college in Richmond.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “South Richmond (Richmond, VA)”

The novel’s subject is the loss of innocence completely and irredeemably; its title is taken from a military cadence that tells of a “yellow bird with a yellow bill” whose head is smashed “upon my windowsill.” Like Poe’s raven, the doomed canaries represent an idea that torments narrator John Bartle as he recounts the story of his criminal complicity in a war crime and his subsequent deterioration during and after his deployment to Iraq as an infantryman. Bartle’s story is not as much about his encounter with military culture and combat as it is about the intense relationship with two fellow soldiers who imbue his service with color and significance. Murph is a younger enlisted soldier, also from Virginia, whom Bartle vows, foolishly as it turns out, to protect. Sterling is Bartle and Murph’s platoon sergeant, a stone-cold veteran of several deployments whose rough love envelops his subordinates even as it hastens them toward their destruction. Bartle’s name is an obvious nod to Herman Melville’s famous Bartleby, the scrivener who “prefers not to” do what his boss asks of him. Bartleby’s passive-aggressive non-compliance is a result of spirit-draining stint working in the US Mail’s dead letter office, and letters figure prominently in The Yellow Birds, but Powers’ Bartle is brought to a state of numbed withdrawal from life after a series of events vastly more horrific and consequential than those experienced by Melville’s scrivener. Compared to Bartle, Bartleby’s choice to opt out is a far greater act of agency and free will than anything manifested by Bartle, who seems dragged through life by circumstance, chance, the will of others, and the mishaps that ensue anytime he tries to act purposefully. Actually interested in trying to please others, he learns, if anything, that doing so negates his own individuality and resourcefulness, while mostly screwing things up for his intended beneficiaries.

Many reviews of The Yellow Birds point to its opening lines as evidence of Power’s stylistic pitch:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.

Such prose is not sedate, but in comparison to the jazzed-up language of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and David Abrams’ Fobbit—both full of laugh-out-loud figures of speech and one-line zingers—The Yellow Birds is slower, more contemplative, more lyrical. No character is ridiculed, and military and political ethics and purposes are not scorned. Even descriptions of combat and the characters’ rough military speech are rendered in a heightened literary register that conveys brooding seriousness and intense artistic imagining. The cumulative effect is to suggest that the catastrophic events that lead to the death of many of the novel’s characters and Bartle’s deterioration are akin to a slow-moving car wreck. Murph in fact uses that analogy to explain combat:

“It’s like a car accident. You know? The instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not …. Like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.”

These sentiments make a mockery of heroism, or any kind of human free will. They recast soldiers as inert entities to whom things happen. By the end of The Yellow Birds, Murph dies, Sergeant Sterling dies, and so do several minor characters. Bartle lives on and tries to feel ordinary again, but does so only by severely reducing the scope of his world: “I don’t want to look out over the earth as it unfurls itself toward the horizon. I don’t want desert and I don’t want plains. I don’t want anything unbroken. I’d rather look out at mountains. Or to have my view obstructed by a group of trees.” “James River Blues,” a terrific song by Old Crow Medicine Show, a band with deep Virginia roots, helps explain Bartle’s state-of-mind:

On the cool flow
Floatin’ down, down below
The bridge to the water’s edge
From the ridge to the ledge
From the hills to the sea
I’ll become a memory

Ensconced back within the Virginian landscape Bartle waits his own vanquishing. His journey beyond the state borders has been a disaster; his personal saga mirrors the downward historical trajectory of the Commonwealth; his character flaws those of his people. Bartle’s catastrophe could be any soldier’s, or that of the nation’s, but that it is a Virginian’s makes it that much more distinctive and poignant.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “Sycamores and Green Bridge, Richmond, VA”

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds. Little, Brown, and Company (2012).

Frank Hobbs’ art by permission of the painter.

This post is dedicated to Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard who died of wounds suffered in 2009 while attached to a Virginia National Guard advisor team assigned to Camp Clark, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

UPDATE September 13, 2015:  RIP today Moses Malone, mentioned here-in, a Virginia high school basketball prodigy and later an NBA MVP–one of the heroes of my youth.

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2 Comments on “James River Blues: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds”

  1. Mike Burke Says:

    I just finished this book–kept me up all night. I don’t think there’s a better depiction of the inside of a soldier’s head after combat. My own experience in the Gulf War was mild compared to the book’s narrator, but I found his state of mind–fragmentary memory, displaced times and places, the knowing and unknowing–to be profoundly familiar and in accord with my own experience. I will have to read the novel again, slowly and carefully, to see if my first impressions are correct.

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    That’s the Virginian in you, too! Melancholy, morbid, and overly sensitive to begin with, and then they send you off to war…. what would anyone expect? Just kidding… sort of… thank God for the gentlemanly veneer and self-deprecating sense of humor and keen eye for the absurd, or else we’d really be crazy….


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