Nathan Deuel reviews Iraq Wat veteran Kevin Powers’s new novel:
For more than a decade, we’ve been sending soldiers over there, and when they come back we say thanks, but we don’t really talk about what they did. We call them heroes, but what do we call them when they kill each other on the base, or beat their wives, or clock one of us, maybe, in the parking lot of the Home Depot? Which words do we offer then? We know this violence is some kind of residue, left over from the work we asked them to do. We don’t excuse their crimes, yet we feel responsible and perhaps ashamed, so we say little, or nothing. All the violence we asked them to do is hanging there, and none of us has a clear idea how to apportion blame, or even how to discuss it. What has this silence done to us? These questions drive the work of a few good writers, such as novelist Benjamin Percy, in his stand-out short story from the 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh, and more formidably and more recently, Kevin Powers, in his novel Yellow Birds. A former U.S. soldier, Powers announces his candidacy as the generation’s premiere war writer with a cerebral and searching knockout of a debut. Nominated for the National Book Award, and informed as it is by what Powers experienced first-hand, Yellow Birds is crushingly mature, real, and fragile.