As a subject, the recent Iraq War poses problems for readers. First there is the war's ubiquitous media presence, and second its divisiveness. Most Americans are now entrenched in something like a partisan apathy toward the war, which is as woven into the absurdity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle as any other inanity, indistinguishable from the deluge of background noise-and it's a stiff task to expect any novelist to thrive in so crowded an imaginative space.
It was a relief to this reader, then, that 2012 saw the success of two major Iraq War novels: Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Both novels were finalists for the National Book Award, and Billy Lynn, enjoying seemingly boundless critical momentum, won the National Book Critics Circle Award on February 28. Despite the authors' shared accolades and Southern roots, however, the books offer markedly different reading experiences, and in the future may constitute cornerstones of this war's fiction.
The Yellow Birds follows Private John Bartle through a lethal firefight in Al Tafar and its aftermath; Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk concerns a squad of soldiers whose exploits at Al-Ansakar Canal turn them into Fox News heroes and the celebrity centerpieces of a Dallas Cowboys halftime show. Powers's novel is a bloody, dusty, tightly focused account of war's psychic toll, while Fountain's is a tragic Polaroid of American excess at its manic height.
In June 2012, Fountain told The Millions, "Everything is political. ... And war is perhaps the ultimate political sphere. Some presentations of the Iraq War-Hollywood movies, especially-have tried to be neutral, to simply present the soldiers' experience on the ground without political commentary. Well, what you get then is a video game." This blending of the personal and the political drives Billy Lynn, whose young protagonist struggles to grieve the loss of his comrade Shroom against a backdrop of gleeful consumerism. Billy offers wry, half-sage observations of what he sees in the world around him-the billionaire owner of the Cowboys, who trots Billy and the rest of Bravo Squad out as a game-day token; the meathead football players who volunteer to "help y'alls bust some raghead ass"; the well-intentioned fans who express their misbegotten gratitude to Billy's Bravo Squad. Although "Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better," the culture is "stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity."
It's no reduction of Fountain's artistry to call Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk a protest novel, as every sentence resonates with the despair that "somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached." Powers's novel, by contrast, narrows its focus so tightly on the character of Private John Bartle that the book has a dreamlike quality. In an interview with The New York Times, Powers said, "I figured if I zeroed in on John and never let my gaze waver, then his fundamental separation from his fellow citizens would be even more pronounced by implication."
Powers succeeds in achieving this effect. We experience Bartle's profound isolation in the first person, his separation rendered through a silence that stands in stark contrast to Billy Lynn's imperial ruckus. Early in The Yellow Birds, Bartle promises the mother of a fellow enlistee that he will help protect her son Murph. When he inevitably fails, we experience his drift into anhedonia. Powers eschews a linear structure for one that skips around between Virginia, Kentucky, Iraq, and Germany over the course of six years. This fractured retelling mirrors Bartle's attempts to organize his life in causal rather than chronological terms as he struggles to make sense of Murph's fate.
While the combat sections are rendered in a tense lyricism, The Yellow Birds' most memorable passages occur during the lonely, broken months Bartle spends in his native Richmond and at Fort Knox, in Kentucky. In Richmond, Bartle ducks old friends and leaves the house only for beer: "You want to fall, that's all. You think it can't go on like that. It's as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can't go back." Later, at Fort Knox, he comes to the soldier's epiphany: "All choices are illusions, or ... if they are not illusions, their strength is illusory, for one choice must contend with the choices of all the other men and women deciding in that moment."
Through very different approaches, Fountain and Powers introduce us to two characters who come to realize how little control they possess over their own lives. Billy is forced into contact with the cultural plutocrats at the helm of American excess, and Bartle must pay the psychic toll of war alone, as the forces around him renounce responsibility. Whatever their differences, then, these books are necessary illuminations of the same cruel truth, that long after the smoke of battle has cleared, the gulf between our country and the soldiers sacrificed on its behalf remains.
The Yellow Birds
Little, Brown and Company
240 pages / $24.99
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
320 pages / 25.99