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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Powers while on duty outside Mosul, Iraq, in 2004. Photo courtesy Kevin Powers
"The only thing that is like war is war, really," Kevin Powers says.
Sitting in a booth at the back of Richmond's Village Cafe, talking over a background soundtrack of thumping Led Zeppelin tunes, the 32-year-old Iraq war veteran and Chesterfield County native says, "With somebody who's been there, you'll tell stories … and it's like knowing a language you both know in common. You're able to communicate on a level you aren't with other people."
More people may soon be able to speak Powers' language, however, after they read his first novel, The Yellow Birds, published by Little, Brown and Co. on Sept. 11 this year. The literati are abuzz with praise for Powers, comparing The Yellow Birds to classics by fiction icons such as Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway.
Famed author (and Richmond native) Tom Wolfe provided a blurb for the book, saying, "Kevin Powers has written All Quiet on the Western Front for America's Arab Wars." Earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly named The Yellow Birds one of the magazine's 10 most-anticipated books for 2012; in late August, the magazine followed with a positive review. The book also received a starred review in Publisher's Weekly months before its official release.
And a crowning moment of praise came last month, as the novel hit bookstores, when New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani unleashed a cascade of laurels on Powers' "philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory." She praised the author's "poetic pointilism" and "emotional precision" in the storytelling.
"The war tried to kill us in the spring," begins the lyrically crafted novel, weaving the tale of 21-year-old Army grunt John Bartle and his 18-year-old buddy "Murph," Pvt. Daniel Murphy. The two bear witness to the cool complexities of modern warfare amid the stifling heat of ancient desert towns where torture and horror wait like a blinding sandstorm brewing on the horizon, an act of God certain to befall any unlucky enough to stray from the armored pack.
"It's not rah-rah, but it's not anti-war either," the author says of his novel. "It feels plausible and more or less real, with some literary flourishes."
Resembling a young George Clooney, Powers is serious and earnest. He rides a Royal Enfield motorcycle and smokes Marlboro Lights. At the Village, he wears a black T-shirt under a lightweight, blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, revealing tattoos on both forearms.
On his left forearm is a doodle his father-in-law drew of Powers' wife of one year, Kelly. On his right forearm is the Ludovisi Gaul, a Roman statue of a Gallic solider defiantly preparing to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. "I saw it in Rome when I was in college," Powers explains. "The Gauls were the Romans' enemies, but they still portrayed them with decency and respect and recognized their humanity. … I just find that compelling and interesting."
Powers himself is not without sympathy for the enemies in his own conflict, and he's aware that readers may not always look kindly on his protagonists. In one passage, for example, Bartle watches without protest while another soldier guns down a car bearing an innocent, elderly Iraqi couple.
"People make dubious moral decisions in the heat of battle, but they can feel guilty and do something chivalrous later," he says. "People are mostly complicated, you know? I guess the one area I was interested in being realistic is the complexity, and I hope it reflects the complexity of the experience."
The Yellow Birds was a much-hyped sensation at this year's BookExpo America, the largest trade fair for book publishers in the nation, held in June at New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where Powers was interviewed by C-SPAN's BookTV.
"Ever since reading Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, I have been gripped by novelists' accounts of the experience of war. And as soon as I began reading The Yellow Birds, I knew I was in the presence of a masterful rendering of the particular horrors of this particular war," says Little, Brown Publisher Michael Pietsch, who also edited David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and later work. "From the first word of this novel to the last, Kevin Powers' portrayal of young soldiers trying to stay alive — and of the effect of the war on their families at home — is profound, unsettling and sadly beautiful."
"In New York, there's a huge buzz about it," says Philipp Meyer, a friend of Powers and the author of American Rust, an Amazon Best Book of the Month selection. "I know the important people in publishing are all talking about it, and they all know the book. From what I've heard, based on the strength of his book, other publishers have been reluctant to put out other Iraq-war-themed novels."
Powers' literary agent, London-based Peter Straus, is a former book editor who worked with luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy and V.S. Naipaul. "I would not dare make any claims on posterity, but I can say that the book knocked me out from the moment I read it and has stayed with me thereafter," Straus says. "A similar reaction happened to my colleagues and, I am delighted to say, to most of the foreign publishers to whom we submitted the book. These publishers all recognised its extraordinary qualities. I do hope it gains the audience and readership it deserves."
Meyer for one believes it will. "It's a brilliant book," he says, comparing it to other fictionalized accounts of war such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried or Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. "It's the first major book about the Iraq war, [and] Kevin kind of nailed it. Usually society needs some processing time after big events before those things can make their way into art, and Kevin managed to skip that and get right to the heart of the war and the cost to the people fighting the war. … I think the book is going to be huge. I think it's going to be important now, and I think it's going to be important 10 or 20 years from now. I think it's one of those books that's never going to go out of print."
James Magnuson, director of the University of Texas' James A. Michener Center for Writers, from which Powers earned his master of fine arts degree in poetry this year, agrees that The Yellow Birds has the potential to be "a very, very big book." The first time Magnuson saw excerpts from the book in a fiction workshop, "I thought it was so powerful. I knew it was going to be something very special. … I think he's going to have a wonderful career. … He can go anywhere he wants to right now."
Growing up, Powers was a bookworm, an intellectually curious, shy teen who haunted the Book Exchange, a used bookstore on Midlothian Turnpike. He read fantasy books by J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King but also discovered authors like William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas.
Powers began writing his own poetry and short stories in middle school, but he wasn't much for academic achievement. "I'd just lose myself in books," he says. "I wasn't a troublemaker or anything. I was just a goof-off."
"Kevin was sort of that square-peg student in school. He definitely kept to himself. He was very quiet. He was not particularly interested in doing well in school at that time," says Patty Strong.
Now the director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Writing Center, Strong was Powers' English teacher for his freshman and junior years at James River High School — "probably the most important teacher I've ever had," he says.
Even though he had a "checkered academic history," Strong says, Powers read his American literature assignments "quite voraciously and enthusiastically. That didn't necessarily translate into good grades. I could tell that he was really invested in it, but Kevin is an independent thinker. He wanted to do things his own way. There are countless students like Kevin who have tremendous intellectual talents who don't fit into the school system the way we have constructed it."
The youngest of three brothers from divorced, middle-class parents, Powers lived with his mother, Linda, in the Settler's Landing subdivision off Robious Road in Midlothian. (She works in labor relations for the U.S. Postal Service; his father, Tom, is a retired factory floor supervisor for Philip Morris.)
"I wasn't a particularly good student. I figured if I was going to go to college, it wasn't going to be on an academic scholarship, and we didn't have a whole bunch of money." So in 1998, fresh out of high school at age 17, Powers enlisted in the National Guard.
"I turned 18 in basic [training]," he says. "It's weird. It was obviously a really challenging experience, but I sort of have fond memories of it now. It's one of those things, you kind of forget about how hard it was."
In 2003, while he was taking classes as a history major at VCU, Powers re-enlisted, knowing his unit would probably soon be activated to go to war. "I guess I could have gotten out. It just never even really occurred to me." To do anything else would have been abandoning his friends and his platoon, he explains.
Powers spent the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004 in New Jersey, training at Fort Dix in anticipation of being shipped out to Iraq.
For a man who spent years writing a novel about the horrors and stresses of war, Powers is reluctant to share his own combat experiences in any real detail with the public. He refuses to say if he killed anyone in his duties as a machine gunner.
As for how autobiographical his book is, he says, "It's a work of the imagination that probably wouldn't have happened if I didn't have the experiences I had. The characters aren't based on anybody I know. … Some of the descriptions come from places I saw … or things I might have heard people say in passing, but the story isn't real. It isn't anything I experienced."
In March 2004, Powers' unit landed in Mosul, where they spent six months as security escorts to Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams, the same sort of bomb-disposal squads portrayed in the Oscar-winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker.
Much of their time was spent at Forward Operating Base Marez, the main military base in Mosul, where soldiers spent their downtime playing PlayStation 2 and poker, reading, and watching bootleg Hollywood movies bought off Iraqi bazaar vendors.
Powers was a disciplined soldier who unsurprisingly read a lot and found a like-minded soul in his sergeant, Tim Van Order, now a risk manager with BB&T in Charlotte, N.C. "We talked about the Greeks and Romans and mythology and war. He was very well-versed in military history," says Van Order. "I liked reading all the classics. I read The Odyssey and The Iliad. … Anything I was reading, Kevin had already read and could explain what had happened in the book. He knows his stuff."
Powers and Van Order spent significant time off-base riding in security convoys in the Iraqi desert and through the crowded, chaotic streets of Mosul. Unlike the regular Army guys, who generally rode in Humvees and armored Stryker vehicles, Powers' National Guard unit rode in the back of five-ton, 40-year-old dump trucks lined with plywood and sandbags as improvised armor. From a pedestal mounted on the center of the truck bed, Powers manned a M240 Bravo machine gun, which can fire off around 800 bullets the size of a man's finger in a minute.
"We were sitting in a dump truck completely vulnerable to attack," Van Order says. "We'd go out in convoys, and we got hit with IEDs and RPGs. We were just sitting ducks on the back of the dump truck. … It was not an ideal situation, that's for sure. … If [enemies are] on the top of a building, they can see everything in the back of a dump truck."
"Being there makes you a target, you know what I mean?" Powers says. "There was a time we hit an IED. We were in this cloud of smoke, ears ringing, and it's so hard to articulate what that's like. ‘Oh, I'm alive,' that kind of thing. ‘All right, I'm alive now.' "
Powers' team also was responsible for destroying weapons caches with C4 plastic explosives. "We'd go out in the countryside, where they'd find a huge weapons cache, hundreds of RPGs and mortar rounds and rockets, and we'd lay out the C4 and get a safe distance away and blow it up," Van Order recalls. "They would tell us how far away to get, like a quarter mile or a mile, and we'd get out and stand behind the truck, and you could hear the shrapnel hitting the ground around you, hitting the truck." Other times, they'd have to remove the ordnance by hand, gently loading each piece onto a truck so it could be transported to base, where it would be exploded later on a detonation range. They made an extra $250 per month for hazardous-duty pay and performing explosives demolitions.
Miraculously, no one in Powers' platoon of 30 soldiers was killed or seriously wounded, aside from a few soldiers who suffered shrapnel wounds. "No one in our platoon came back missing any digits," Van Order says. "We had a guy in the battalion that lost his leg. He was in the back of a dump truck, and an RPG came in and took off one of his legs." It was always difficult to tell where the fire was coming from in the crowded city, both men say.
As a soldier, Powers found his own meaning for the war and for fighting.
The Bush administration's case for the Iraq war was built on a lie, Powers says flatly, "but when we would interact with the people there … one of the things I heard a lot was, ‘You shouldn't have come here, but now that you're here, you can't leave.' … When I was there in '04, things were getting pretty rough."
In northern Iraq, his team was ordered to sweep for booby traps over a mass grave of Kurds killed by Saddam Hussein's regime. Occasionally, they'd see the bodies of Iraqis left along the side of the road, murdered by parties unknown. If the U.S. troops had pulled out, he says, the result would have been "chaos."
Powers finished his wartime service in Tal Afar, 30 miles west of Mosul, where his unit spent six months clearing IEDs from the roads.
On Dec. 21, 2004, Powers returned to the Mosul base to collect his mail. He was walking toward the base's dining hall when it was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing 22 people and wounding 72, one of the largest such insurgent attacks in the war. The inflatable dome covering the mess hall looked like a deflated balloon. "I saw the explosions before I heard it. We went and tried to do what we could to help. People were stumbling out of there," Powers recalls.
"It was not a great day."
Following his tour of duty, in early 2005, Powers returned to Richmond, where he first rented an apartment on the Boulevard, working as a house framer with one of his older brothers, a carpenter. He later moved to a house near the WTVR News 6 tower in the city's Near West End. It was there, and later, while living in an apartment behind the Siegel Center, that Powers wrote his first early draft of The Yellow Birds.
Like his Pvt. Bartle, Powers says he grappled with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome, though "not the severity described in the book," he says. "It was not an easy transition. I felt uprooted, displaced, confused … varying degrees of anger and guilt. … It's difficult to readjust because you've been through this experience that most people don't understand."
His former sergeant, Van Order, says, "I think anyone who's served has some sort of PTSD, and I'm sure I do. It's minor, and I've never been to counseling, and I think Kevin was probably the same way." Van Order found returning home to school at Virginia Tech to be surreal. Months before, he had been in the desert, where his platoon mates complained about mortar attacks landing 30 meters from where they were sleeping. At Tech, the biggest gripes his fellow students had were being assigned a test and homework on the same day.
"It requires adjustment, dealing with other people," Van Order says. "There's nothing to complain about here. You don't have to worry about a bomb attacking you down the street today."
After returning to Richmond, Powers took a couple other jobs, working as a call-center and office employee for Capitol One and as a substitute special-ed teacher for severely autistic children in Chesterfield County Public Schools, while continuing college, this time as an English major. He earned his undergrad degree from VCU in 2008.
An epiphany came: "I was always a writer, but I never showed anybody my stuff or told anybody I did it," he says. Making a career of writing "always seemed like a really big risk." He feared failure. "F--k it," he recalls saying to himself, "I'm going to try to be a poet and go back to school. … It was worth it to give it a shot."
"He was very anxious he would not be accepted into any programs because of his [high school] academic record," recalls Strong, who read Powers' early Yellow Birds manuscripts. "I looked at him, and I said, ‘Kevin, everyone is going to accept you.' He had to move through a good wall of doubt. … He's a remarkable talent, [but] he's so self-effacing."
In 2009, Powers was accepted into the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers, which its director, James Magnuson, describes as the "most selective program in the country. We take 12 a year out of 1,200 applicants." He finished The Yellow Birds last October and received his MFA as a Michener Fellow in Poetry from the University of Texas this spring.
In August, Powers moved to Italy, where his wife will attend the graduate fashion design program at Florence's Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing. An avid traveler, he proposed to Kelly on a backpacking trip through Italy. Though he plans to return to the United States in a couple years, he says he's always wanted to live abroad — hastily amending, "in different circumstances under which I lived abroad before."
He is also preparing to tour in support of his book. He's begun working on another novel and also plans to publish a poetry collection. He doesn't want to speculate on The Yellow Birds' success. He's gratified and excited by all the acclaim, but he's actively trying to avoid thinking about how big the book could be.
"I make a concerted effort not to spend too much time thinking about the other end of it," he says. "I wrote the best book I possibly could, and people, it's their right to think whatever they want to think about it. I almost think of it as almost not my business. I did the best I could, and it's out of my hands, you know?"