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War is hell, and it carries on even if you make it home

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The Yellow Birds

By Kevin Powers

Little Brown, 226 pages, $28

ERNEST Hemingway has a lot to answer for, not the least of which is prose of a clipped, lean, staccato manner that seems perfectly suited to narratives about war written by war veterans.

Newcomer Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds is one such novel, and like many in the genre -- Johnny Got His Gun, Going After Cacciato -- it is at once harrowing and deeply sad.

The time is the present, the place America, the story that of a young GI who has fought in Iraq and returned home, having seen his close buddy, Murph, among others, brutally killed.

The experience has hardened John Bartle, to the point where much of his narrative seems a deliberate turning away from itself to other things: the sheen of dew on leaves, the hue of night skies, the sounds of birds.

This is typical: "I was still quite drunk and my head was foggy. I went behind the bar and found a whisky bottle. I sat on the floor and looked out the window and drank the rest of the whisky."

An Iraq War vet himself, Powers employs this flat, hard prose, which is a kind of denial through minimalism. The Hemingway of Big Two-Hearted River could not have etched this better. What is not said is more important than what is said.

War novels often switch between two scenarios, combat and relief: the former documenting brutality, stupidity and death; the latter showing young soldiers at rest -- smoking cigarettes, bathing in rivers, carrying on at brothels and bars.

The Yellow Birds, Powers' debut, is little different: when the soldiers are not killing the enemy (hajji), or being killed by them, they're at rest, chatting, smoking, trying not to dwell on dismemberment and death. Trying not to think of the inevitable.

The combat scenes are gruesome: limbs, blood, confusion, stench, screaming, vomit, panic. Soldiers are blown up; women and children gunned down.

It's with relief that the narrative relapses to scenes in the United States, where Bartle wrestles with civilian life after serving his tour of duty: "The usual had become remarkable, the remarkable boring, and toward whatever came in between I felt only a listless confusion."

He's carrying a heavy burden. Just before he and Murph left there was a farewell party. At it Murph's mother begged him to return her son safely, and he foolishly promised her, "I'll bring him home to you."

So Bartle is tortured. Bad enough to witness killing and chaos in Iraq. He dreams about but cannot shake free of it; wakes with his hand clutched around an imaginary rifle barrel. But added to that is the guilt of this promise. He let Murph down; he let Murph's mom down and chastises himself for it: "failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead."

He's accused of lying about the way Murph died, and then incarcerated for his actions. His life unravels, in scenes as pathetic as those of boys dying in Iraq, to which the only response is to turn away and vomit.

In the end he does not seek forgiveness, but something far less poignant: "If I could not forget, then I could hope to be forgotten."

War is hell has been the constant theme of war fiction from Generals Die in Bed to The Things They Carried. What's striking about The Yellow Birds is that it shows how that hell carries on, even when you make it back to home, haunted, disintegrating, with little hope of being a whole human being ever again.

Winnipeg writer Wayne Tefs' new book, On the Fly, a chronicle of the Jets past season, will be released in the fall.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 J9

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