“The Yellow Birds” is about a terrible thing that happens in Iraq to a soldier there, and the terrible way his friend, the POV character, deals with that terrible thing, both in the moment and after coming home.
I started off hating this book due to its beautiful prose. I am not saying that I was jealous. I am saying that the beauty of the prose irritated me. I ended up liking it pretty well, despite the beautiful prose. Which still irritated me.
Maybe “beautiful” is the wrong word. Here is what I really mean: every page has at least five or ten or twenty or forty astounding metaphors. And it’s not just the metaphors. It’s the words themselves. The language calls attention to itself and then calls attention to itself again to make sure you noticed, the first time, that it had called attention to itself. I’m not saying it’s poorly written and flashy; I’m saying it’s well-written and flashy. It all flows with mellifluous assonance. These sentences have been worked over but good. I swear, much of the prose feels like unrhymed iambic pentameter with the line breaks removed, like a trick that Nabokov or Joyce might pull on his less-well-educated audience, just for the hell of it, to see if anybody caught him at his shenanigans. It distances the reader emotionally — or, at least, it distanced this reader emotionally — from the events of the narrative itself.
Think of a pop song by a wannabe diva on a reality show, where every note precipitates an avalanche of melisma and fluttering hands. If Kevin Powers, the author of “The Yellow Birds,” had been a girl singer, and if Christina Aguilera had picked him for her team on “The Voice,” you can bet that her first words of advice would be, “Pick your moments.”
Or imagine trying to find a mugger based on a police sketch done up in the style of Giotto. There’s more artfulness than is useful. All of that care and attention to detail, the cherubs in the corner, the grapevine motif along the edges, actually kind of get in the way of seeing what matters, the center of the composition, the perpetrator’s face.
In short: by the time you’ve read the 150th astounding metaphor in one chapter, you don’t find the next one or the next one or the next one astounding. The pretty sentences blur in their prettiness until you hardly can force yourself to look at them. You just want to get on with it. At a certain point, Powers does get on with it, for a real narrative payoff, finally.
But you’ll have to wade through a lot of well-written bad prose in the meantime.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Boston’s WBUR has posted the first page or so online as part of their write-up, so you can get a sense of the prose:
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. … more
The New York Times loved it:
At the age of 17, Kevin Powers enlisted in the Army and eventually served as a machine-gunner in Iraq, where the sky is “vast and catacombed with clouds,” where soldiers stay awake on fear and amphetamines and Tabasco sauce daubed into their eyes, where rifles bristle from rooftops and bullets sound like “small rips in the air.” Now he has channeled his experience into “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo. .. read more