The self is a watery thing: an amalgam of soul and circumstance, family and origin, class, culture and chemistry. What happens to the self while it hurtles through the chaos of trauma is what concerns Kevin Powers' new novel, "The Yellow Birds" (Little, Brown and Co., $24.99). The source of that trauma is the Iraq War.
The main character, Bartle, joins the Army and grudgingly befriends another private, Murphy, whom he helps through training. During a ceremony on the eve of shipping out, he makes a promise to Murphy's mother to keep her son from harm and to bring him home. This links the two from that point forward but also opens deeper chasms of questioning: How responsible can we can really be for anyone else? Why is it important to step back from our preconceptions of identity and self?
To Bartle, he and Murphy had to understand they were no more than numbers in a potential body count. They had to acknowledge: "Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary."
Otherwise, they might be overcome by fear and cowardice when they most needed to rely on their training to function.
Murphy's greatest flaw is that he cannot shake his longing for human compassion. "He wanted to choose. He wanted to want," and this makes him vulnerable to deeper suffering. He begins to drift away mentally, until he is gone. His body slips "through a hole in the wire ... his clothes and disassembled weapon scattered in the dust."
Bartle joins the hunt for his lost friend, chained to a deeper responsibility and perhaps to his own humanity. What he discovers and how he reacts play out as the central conflict of his life.
Bartle's meditations are fraught with images of disintegration — swirling smoke and dust, scattering birds, dogs rolling in garbage and desert landscapes juxtaposed with the lushness of Virginia. Physical things are tied to thoughts of ambivalence and indifference. His characters strive for sense and order, yet find that events merely pile on without pattern. Experiences are thrust upon them and little is learned.
According to Powers, the best that Bartle can hope for "is getting back to zero." He is charged to recover his friend, but also "to accept that this disorder is a constant in the world, not a punishment."
The honesty and sincerity with which Powers treats the issues of a returning soldier's detachment and disassociation earns "The Yellow Birds" comparisons to other notable war novels: Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Carrying these heavy themes is a well-told story that weaves time, as if to imitate the fragmented way we remember, and displays a richness of language and imagery. In the book's final passage, we see a body floating down the Tigris River, with its "injuries erased to the pure white of bone ... finally break apart near the mouth of the gulf ... toward a line of waves that break forever as he enters them."
The closing image is analogous to "the contradictions under which we all live every day," Powers says, in which "both life and death are constant and incomprehensible." And yet we seek more than just to survive them.
Powers, a Richmond native and former machine-gunner in Iraq, returned after his service to enroll at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he began this first novel in 2007. Richmond itself plays a main role in the story. After his undergraduate work, he attended the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where he completed and sold his book. He now lives with his wife in Florence, Italy.
Kevin Powers will appear at a book signing Saturday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Chesterfield Towne Center.