Nine years after the initial invasion of Iraq, we coronated the first âbigâ American Iraq War novel â" a book set at Texas Stadium and written by a Dallas author who never set foot in the war zone. That was Ben Fountainâs Billy Lynnâs Long Halftime Walk (May, 2012), a devastating but funny indictment of a war.
Now come two novels actually set in Iraq, and composed after each writer returned from his own tour of duty.
Apart from their desert backdrops, The Yellow Birds and Fobbit have little to say to each other: The former is an overwrought psychological exploration of a returning soldier, the latter a Horatian satire that shows flashes of brilliance but lacks the bite of a Catch-22. Though both offer glimpses of whatâs itâs really like over there, somehow neither book makes the reader feel as embattled as the one that never strays from Texas.
Especially Yellow Birds. After his tour in Iraq, Kevin Powers studied English and became a Michener fellow in poetry en route to earning his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin. His inclination toward verse shows in passage after weary passage extolling the wonders of clouds and rivers and sand and snow and stars. Buried under which, somewhere, is a tale worth telling.
After enlisting, Army Pvt. John Bartle comes to feel responsible for bunkmate Daniel Murphy. Before shipping out, Bartle promises Murphâs mother that heâll return her son in one piece â" a promise Bartle doesnât keep. Although he isnât directly to blame, this narrative is his mea culpa.
Itâs a convoluted one. Though Bartle claims that Murphâs death is simple, he forces himself to âprovide an explanation more complex,â he tells us, âsomething with a level of profundity and depth.â
Murphâs death is simple in that war is hell, but for Bartle, the retelling is a Sisyphean exercise. Swamped in heavy exposition, Bartle strains to parse that profundity he isnât convinced even exists, because âto say what happened, the mere facts â¦ would come to seem like a kind of treachery.â
Powers offers a soldier who aches to tell his story but is not yet emotionally equipped. Hence, a multitude of avoidance tactics, as when Bartle tries to relate a firefight: âI saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields,â he tells us, then disengages. âIn that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh â¦â and so on, until we forget weâre reading a battle scene.
Bartleâs storytelling paralysis is interesting in a clinical way, but it makes for frustrating fiction: His motives for enlisting are only hinted at; his friendship with Murph is hazy (âI donât know if we were actually closeâ); heâs unprepared to address his guilt, or his feelings about the war itself.
Does a returning soldier, when asked what it was really like, have the right to ignore, avoid or obfuscate? Absolutely. Does the same go for a fiction writer who offers up a narrative? I suppose so. That doesnât obligate the reader to overlook flaws. At times Powers allows Bartle a sliver of clarity, but in the end these moments are crushed beneath clichÃ©s (âA few of the stars I saw were probably already gone, collapsed into nothing.â) and feeble stabs at critical observation (the U.S. as âland of the free, of reality television, outlet malls, and deep vein thrombosisâ).
David Abramsâ answer to what was it really like is Fobbit, a dark comedy based on his own journal entries. Fobbit explores life on Baghdadâs Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph, and the conflicts between the maligned âFobbitsâ enwombed there and the âdoor kickersâ who venture on violent patrols. While the grunts face sniper fire and IEDs, Fobbits shuffle paperwork in air-conditioned offices, two-stepping with the press and spinning the story for the folks back home.
Abrams offers a richly amusing cast of misfits, including: Capt. Abe Shrinkle, a care package-hoarding neâer-do-well; the bowel-leaking Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad; and the âFobbitiest,â Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., whose job it is to euphemize the war in his press releases (suicide bomb âeventsâ cause âwounds inconsistent with life.â)
Abrams does an excellent job shedding light on the Armyâs PR spin campaigns, and the antiwar crowd will be able to cherry-pick crushing lines, such as: âDead soldiers were now little more than names and hometowns, corpses simply objects to be loaded onto the back of C-130s somewhere and delivered like pizzas to the United States.â
The book also contains one of the most vivid 9/11 scenes American fiction has offered.
Still, Abramsâ Fobbits rarely stray from their paths, and although predictability is no sin in satire, I was left wishing Abrams had a few harsher surprises up his sleeve.
If you want animated black humor, pick up Fobbit. If you want a more self-contained, character-driven narrative, go with The Yellow Birds.
For both in one book, read Billy Lynnâs Long Halftime Walk.
David Duhr is fiction editor of the Texas Observer.
The Yellow Birds
(Little, Brown & Co., $24.99)
(Black Cat, $15)