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Book reviews: War and pièces de résistance

Oct. 25, 2012 - 04:37PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 25, 2012 - 04:37PM  |  
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"The Yellow Birds," by Kevin Powers, Little, Brown, 240 pages, hardcover, $24.99
"Fobbit," by David Abrams, Black Cat, 369 pages, paperback, $15

One soldier was a specialist, a machine-gunner in Tal Afar, the other a master sergeant in Baghdad public affairs. Each has written a book, coincidentally published in the same month, but as different as May and December. Each man writes what he knows. One book is a lament with resilience, the other a laugh that resonates. Both will endure.

‘The Yellow Birds'

Powers' first novel is full of boys, bile, bark, bodies and bewilderment.

The title is from a march cadence but could represent cowardice or the canaries young Daniel Murphy's father brings home from the mines. Pvt. Murph, 18, befriends Pvt. John Bartle, 21, and in 2004 neither wants to be "the thousandth (soldier) killed ... let that number be someone else's milestone."

Bartle tells their story from a distance of nine years, enough time to understand that "all remembrances are assignations of significance."

Foreshadowing shows that Murph will end up "floating down that bend in the Tigris." Why and how he floats shows Powers' ability to build suspense and the case for Bartle's suspension of self-worth.

Bartle becomes "like the curator of a small unvisited museum" who attracts the Criminal Investigation Command. No hero, he has not "done anything except survive."

The book is nominated — with another novel about Iraq soldiers, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" — for a National Book Award.


The author describes "Fobbit" as an "anti-stupidity" novel, not an anti-war novel, and with 20 years' service, he has the evidence and flair to write the former.

His satire is about work and play on a forward operating base. The plights and pleasures of the inhabitants, pejoratively called fobbits, make a comedy of errors and (bad) manners.

Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr. is the fobbit "poster child." In public affairs, his "weapons were words, his sentences were missiles," but he's no match for officers who say "envisionment" instead of "vision" and possess neither.

Infantry Capt. Abe Shrinkle's foibles require Gooding's attention. Shrinkle personifies inaction and incompetence with an exception: He is King of the Care Package, receiving 10 a day. The gifts are "a way for (senders) to show the rest of the world — Democrats especially — they really knew how to Support the Troops" while remaining safe back home in "amber waves of ignorant bliss."

"Fobbit" is bliss that some compare to "Catch-22."

J. Ford Huffman is a Military Times book reviewer.

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