Sometimes you read a book whose writing makes your knees buckle. This is one of those books--this is some of the finest writing I've read in a long time. But it's also an example of a novel that despite its near-flawless writing, falls just short of greatness. This book has been billed as the Iraq War's analog to The Things they Carried. And while I think Powers is a virtuoso with the English language, O'Brien's ability to craft a story makes "Things" a more powerful work overall.
Yellow Birds does have a plot line and arc, but its potential gets subsumed by the meditations on the nature and debilitating effects of PTSD. The result is that you don't really care what the story does because the narrator is already driven to madness. Indeed (spoiler), he is led meekly away in cuffs at the end and it's almost as though you're watching the denouement from a thousand miles away (/spoiler). On the other hand, that's ok because the purpose and message of this book is really to illuminate the silent cost of war on the psyche of those who are touched by it. I was deeply shaken by this book and it has stuck with me since reading it.
This is Powers' first novel and I think he will mature and grow in his craft and when he does he will be one hell of a great American novelist.