sábado, 8 de dezembro de 2012
On the Ground
By BENJAMIN PERCY
THE YELLOW BIRDS
By Kevin Powers
230 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.
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.
In the northern city of Al Tafar, 21-year-old Pvt. John Bartle and his platoon engage in a bloody campaign to control the city. Before his deployment Bartle promised the mother of 18-year-old Pvt. Daniel Murphy he would take care of her son, bring him back alive. It is a promise that, as Powers reveals from the earliest pages, he will not keep. But in the meantime they suffer through basic training together, followed by Iraqi street fights that leave rooftops covered in brass casings and doorsteps splashed with blood — all under the command of the growly, battle-scarred Sergeant Sterling, who punches them in the face one moment and claps them on the back the next, ordering them to combat both the insurgents and the mental stress that threaten to send them home in a box with a flag draped over the top.
Though a colonel in a crisp uniform smelling of starch does his best “half-assed Patton imitation” and tells the young soldiers to “give ’em hell,” Bartle feels little sense of drive or destination or purpose. He knows this is not his grandfather’s war. He will kill some. He will drive away others. And then, while he patrols the streets, he will “throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.” There is a helpless resolve when he dodges bullets and ducks mortar blasts and studies corpses and considers going AWOL, doing his best to survive while wondering how he can honor his promise to keep Murphy intact, when he feels as if he himself is disintegrating.
The novel moves, fitfully, through Virginia and Iraq and Germany and New Jersey and Kentucky, from 2003 to 2009. Recalling the war, Bartle says, is “like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion.” This serves the story in two ways. First, it turns readers into active participants, enlisting them in a sense as co-authors who fit together the many memories and guess at what terrible secret lies in wait, the truth behind Murphy’s death. Because they lean forward instead of back, because they participate in piecing together the puzzle, they are made more culpable.
Then too, the fractured structure replicates the book’s themes. Like a chase scene made up of sentences that run on and on and ultimately leave readers breathless, or like a concert description that stops and starts, that swings and sways, that makes us stamp our feet and clap our hands — the nonlinear design of Powers’s novel is a beautifully brutal example of style matching content. War destroys. It doesn’t just rip through bone and muscle, stone and steel; it fragments the mind as a fist to a mirror might create thousands of bloodied, glittering shards.
When Bartle ends up confined to a military prison, he has only his memories to keep him company, memories he tries to chase down even as their logic and sequence evade him: “My first few months inside, I spent a lot of time trying to piece the war into a pattern. I developed the habit of making a mark on my cell wall when I remembered a particular event, thinking that at some later date I could refer to it and assemble all the marks into a story that made sense.” But the marks begin to run together, and disorder predominates. Eventually, he knows, the walls will appear scraped over entirely, scoured down to a blind white patina.
Bartle’s uncertain memory — a willful forgetfulness partnered with the inability to control images of so many bullets tearing through bodies and making them dance — makes it impossible for him to return stateside. Throughout the war, he has wanted nothing more than to come home, but once home, everything reminds him of something else. His hand closes around the stock of a rifle that isn’t there. From the moment he steps off the transport plane and walks through the airport, “the ghosts of the dead filled the empty seats of every gate I passed: boys destroyed by mortars and rockets and bullets and I.E.D.’s to the point that when we tried to get them to a medevac, the skin slid off, or limbs barely held in place detached, and I thought that they were young and had girls at home or some dream that they thought would make their lives important.” When his mother embraces him and tells him he’s home at last, he doesn’t believe her. A fan whirs, a train rattles in the distance and Bartle’s pulse flutters up into his eyes, every little thing a trapdoor sending him into that dark place where the alligators wait with widening jaws.
In this way, “The Yellow Birds” joins the conversation with books like Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony,” Brian Turner’s “Phantom Noise” and Tim O’Brien’s classic, “The Things They Carried” — and wakes the readers of “the spoiled cities of America” to a reality most would rather not face. Here we are, fretting over our Netflix queues while halfway around the world people are being blown to bits. And though we might slap a yellow ribbon magnet to our truck’s tailgate, though we might shake a soldier’s hand in the airport, we ignore the fact that in America an average of 18 veterans are said to commit suicide every day. What a shame, we say, and then move on quickly to whatever other agonies and entertainments occupy the headlines.
Powers earned a master’s degree in poetry at the University of Texas at Austin. This is evident in the music of his sentences, the shining details he delivers like tiny gems in so many of his descriptions. The soldiers wake to the “narrow whine of mortars as they arced over our position and crumpled into the orchard,” and Bartle’s body pulses with “an all-encompassing type of pain like my whole skin was made out of a fat lip.” His language is as dazzling as the flashes of a muzzle.
Of course, fancy phrasing can be a distraction as well, and Powers occasionally stumbles — especially when Bartle is thoughtfully processing the war or staring moodily out at the landscape. Consider this half-page passage about clouds bunching over the ocean: “I knew, watching them, that if in any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind’s mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war. . . . ” On it goes, with lengthy brow-furrowing meditation and descriptions of the Iraqi desert’s enclosure and how lost Bartle felt among the “innumerable grains of sand.” Passages like this seem better suited to sonnets about strummed lutes and foggy moors. The emotional recoil of the war is strongest when Powers remains in scene, when he keeps his soldiers on the march.
Midway through the novel, a group of soldiers huddle around a gut-shot private. His skin pales even as his lips go dark purple. His body shakes and spittle runs down his chin. Everyone leans in to hear what he will say. But when he dies without speaking, his comrades cast down their faces in frustrated surprise before wandering aimlessly away. Bartle wishes aloud that the dying soldier would have said something, and his sergeant responds: “They usually don’t.”
But Kevin Powers has something to say, something deeply moving about the frailty of man and the brutality of war, and we should all lean closer and listen.
Benjamin Percy is the author of a novel, “The Wilding,” and two story collections. His new novel, “Red Moon,” will be published next spring.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 11:07