Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Private Bartle, age 21, and Private Murphy, age 18, are U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004.  Murphy is sort of a fragile runt, with Bartle as his assigned protector, and Bartle has foolishly promised Murphy’s mother that he will see that her son returns home safely.  We know early on that Bartle, the narrator, will have to renege on that promise.  We also know that Bartle suffers tremendous guilt regarding Murphy’s fate after he returns to the U.S.  The author keeps us in suspense until the end of the novel when he finally discloses the circumstances of Murphy’s death.  The chapters leading up to this finale alternate between the seemingly ineffective gunfire exchanges in Iraq and Bartle’s inability to cope with life after his return to the States, spent in a drunken stupor.  For both Bartle and Murphy, the war is a baffling exercise in futility, but Murphy in particular starts becoming unglued, having witnessed his sergeant murdering civilians and having watched a fellow soldier die in combat.  As the sergeant puts it, “You’ve got to stay deviant,” and Murphy is much too sensitive to survive emotionally or physically in such a gruesome environment.  To me, this is not so much a buddy novel as it is a story of an innocent young man and his slightly-more-mature reluctant bodyguard.  Both Murphy and Bartle make bad decisions with devastating consequences, but we can chalk Murphy’s mistakes up to his delicate nature.  However, Bartle, as our narrator, is the more sympathetic character, and we willingly forgive his transgressions, given the traumatic circumstances.  I’m not in a position to judge how authentic Bartle’s voice is, but it seemed pretty real to me—maybe a little too real.

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