Kevin Powers: "When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause."

The winner of the Guardian First Book Award interviewed.

Last night, the American writer and former soldier Kevin Powers won the Guardian First Book Award for his novel "The Yellow Birds", set during the Iraq war. I spoke to Powers about his service in Iraq and the tradition of the war novel.

Like the narrator of your novel The Yellow Birds, John Bartle, you went straight into the army from high school, rather than going to university. Was that always the plan? Or did you fall into military service by accident, like Bartle does?

I suppose I share that trajectory with him – it wasn’t something I planned to do from a young age. At the time I made the decision to sign up, it did seem like a practical choice, for a number of reasons. There’s an unofficial tradition of serving in the military in my family – my father, my uncle and my grandfather had all served. I did want to go to college, but for financial and other reasons it didn’t seem like I had all that many options. So knowing that the army would pay for that after my service … and I did believe that it was an honourable choice to make. I suppose in a way I was attracted by the sense of adventure.

Did it also have something to do with where you’re from, with Virginia and a particular tradition of military service there?

Not only Virginia, but throughout the south and the rural and semi-rural areas of America. It’s often the case that a significant portion of soldiers would come from those areas. It’s probably more common in places like where I grew up to go into the military than it may be in, let’s say, New York or Boston.

This is not just a novel about war is it? In a way, it’s also a book about Virginia isn’t it?

That’s true. Home, and the idea of home, figured prominently in the writing of it. So it seemed appropriate for the characters to have that shared geographical history.

What was it like going to college as a veteran, being alongside students who hadn’t had that experience?

Well, of course I was several years older than most of the other students. I probably didn’t take things for granted that I might have had I gone right after high school. I was aware of my own sense of being separate.

There’s a connection between what you’ve just said and one of the themes of the novel - that war is a kind of laboratory of solipsism in which soldiers care principally about saving their own skins.

That’s true. Bartle has to comes terms with his own survival and his responsibility for the people around him – particularly Murph. And when he comes home, the direct challenge he has to face is coming to terms with his individual experience. He has to fight that battle on his own too.

Bartle says early in the novel that “war is the great maker of solipsists” yet the book is also about relationships – between Bartle and Murph, and between him and Sterling. One of the organising tensions in the novel seems to be between solipsism and comradeship.

Yes, I think so. Obviously, the survival instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, is probably the strongest instinct we have in common. But it does also bump up against loyalty and the sense of responsibility for one another.

Did your commitment to the ideas of comradeship and loyalty survive your own experiences in Iraq?

You know, it certainly affected the way I determined what it is I am loyal to. When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause. I focused on the fact that I’d made a commitment to the people around me that we’d watch out for each other. So for me that was what drove me to do the job, to stay alert. It was all rooted in the fact that I felt I had an obligation to the people in my unit.

It’s interesting that you mention the idea of just cause. Was it the very idea of war being pursued in a just cause that you gave up or the idea that that war in particular was being fought in pursuit of a just cause?

To some degree, it’s both. I am able to imagine a situation in which, if war was the last course of action available [it is just], but in the case I happened to serve in I find it harder to make the same claims.

This is a novel, not a political tract, but do you see it as having a political aspect? Or were your motivations in the first place literary?

I did try to avoid having any kind of explicit agenda. I simply want to leave a record of my own attempts to reckon with these question through the imagination. But it’s hard to talk about war honestly and not … My personal opinion is that if you’re talking about war honestly, it will naturally tend towards being anti-war. I can’t envision an honest war novel that left war in a positive light.

The Yellow of Birds has attracted comparisons with great war novels of the past, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Were such novels on your mind when you were writing this? Is that a tradition you felt yourself writing your way into?

No. Sitting in the small apartment in which I wrote most of the book, I was only hopeful that one person might read it and feel some kind of connection. But obviously I’m flattered and grateful that people seem to have had a powerful reaction to it.

Are there war novels that you particularly admire?

There certainly are. There’s a spectacular Vietnam novel called Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright. Being someone who both reads and writes poetry, I think of Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet who has written a great deal about his experiences of the Vietnam war. Those poems are singularly important to me.

There’s a remarkable density of description in the novel, and I guess that’s the poet in you. Do you see yourself as a poet first and novelist second, or the other way round?

I guess I find the boundaries between poetry and prose to be somewhat permeable. When I have an idea and sit down to write something, I trust my instincts that I’m taking the right form. Poetry and prose are of equal importance to me as a reader and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in my own writing.

Were you writing in Iraq or did you start writing when you got back from your tour of duty there?

I didn’t have much spare mental energy to write [over there]. I did jot some things down in a notebook, but nothing that was directed with any kind of order.

Have many of those you fought alongside read the book?

No. But I’ve talked to some of them about it and they say they’re looking forward to reading it.

Do you think there’s a kind of standard time-lag before a war gains its own literature? After all, it took a while for a Vietnam literature to emerge. Is it still quite early as far as the literature of the Iraq war is concerned?

It does seem to be the case. But Iraq books are beginning to emerge – Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for instance.

Kevin Powers, winner of the Guardian First Book Award (Photograph: Kelly Powers)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge