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Friday, February 15, 2013

In progress: 'Yellow Birds', ties to 'Fobbit'

Having just finished the midway part of Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, the big chapter with the big sentence where the young narrator who has survived a tour of duty in Iraq drifts through life and partway down the river, one of those "aha!" connection moments between books occurred.

The Yellow Birds is one of the three Iraq novels published last year. The first I've read, David Abrams' Fobbit, succeeded for my brain and my heart, as well as my sense of humor. It was a smooth, stunningly clever novel in which the total nonsense of war came together.

Powers's novel is completely different. In style, it veers between the extremes of Hemingway admiration and Jamesian twists and turns. One sentence, in the above-mentioned Chapter 7, takes up about two pages. It reveals a great deal of the narrator's character, his motivation, his heart and why his mournful inertia is so hard for him to get past.

And that's when I realized the difference between the two novels. Fobbit is told from an omnipresent perspective that shows the interior and exterior portions of several characters. It's grown-up. It knows war is supremely ridiculous and tragic at the same time.

The Yellow Birds reads from the perspective of a sensitive young man who is just seeing how bad life can be, and has learned this lesson in the worst way possible -- by seeing and causing the taking of life in service of powers that take but never give.

This difference in the two novels is one of the reasons to celebrate the breadth of contemporary fiction. It takes more than one voice, one story, to try to convey the scope of something like war, especially Iraq. I'm looking forward to adding my reading of Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk to my cumulative knowledge in hopes of understanding more.

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