In a word: Perfect. This is more of a poem than a novel, as the words combine and explode in a burst of great color and smell and sound like molecules in an exothermic reaction. I'm in awe of Powers' talent. How could this be someone's first book, written in his late 20s? As a late 30-something writer, I find this astounding. There are few works in which I scrutinize each sentence and every paragraph and not find a way to adjust or alter it in some way, every so often, to perhaps heighten emotion and clarify meaning. This is one of those cases. Powers' writing is unimprovable, as one of the front cover blurbs states.
As for the story, I found it heart breaking and gripping and immediate and important. Like the military cadence the book is named after, these young boys are lured into war only to have their heads bashed in, literally and figuratively, and this account makes me realize why it's so unfair for a civilian to ask a veteran "What was it like over there?" It requires a work of high art to answer that question, and this novel provides it. While there is a story here, and it contains a well-concealed treasure of a secret, the only way to appreciate this novel is to enjoy the journey that takes you into the heart of this secret, and what it means. This is 40-year-old scotch to be sipped for pleasure, not Early Times to be slugged for getting wasted. This is indeed a work of art, not the type of thing that lends itself easily to imagining upon the silver screen. It is so sensual, the descriptions of people and scents and desert and bodies and sewage and lamb all coalesce until you feel like a ghost floating above the scene of war and homecoming.
If you appreciate amazing writing, read this. If you care about what's happening to the thousands of soldiers who've been broken by this war, read this. If you want to catch a glimpse of what this war would be like if circumstances conspired to put you there, read this.