Firebird Mark Powell

For a moment, I thought I’d wandered into the pages of a young adult novel. Then again, there’s more sex and drugs, murder and mayhem in The Hunger Games then there is in Mark Powell’s turgid fiction Firebird. This is a sadly bloodless, oblique effort fashioned as a behind-the-scenes story of recent historical events.

Powell’s tale is set in the Ukraine crisis from roughly mid-2013 to mid-2014; from just prior to the Euromaidan protests to soon after the Russian military intervention that annexed Crimea and instigated pro-Russian secessionist rebellions in eastern Ukraine. An omnipresent American corporation called Leviathan Global is fomenting instability and war in Eastern Europe by engaging in clandestine arms smuggling in hopes of switching out Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas for newly discovered deposits of Slovakian shale gas. Plotters seeking to take down Leviathan and its principles fall out among themselves, and a couple of the arms smugglers have gone rogue. A secret electronic dossier called FIREBIRD “that outlines all of Leviathan’s holdings […] Alfa Bank, Paradise Financial, the URLs originating in the Caymans […] Leviathan’s 19% stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft” is rumored to exist which, if revealed, will destroy the company. And yet, despite all Powell’s tropes of international corporate intrigue, he fails to deliver an action suspense thriller.

Powell’s writing itself is clean and precise and on occasion evocative. He manages to respectably handle a dozen characters within 300 pages. The problem here is that the cast of characters is forgettable. Among them is a poisoned dissident Czech colonel and his daughter out for vengeance, a Leviathan CEO and Slovakian ambassador whose wife sees auras and is in love with her spying maid, a billionaire Hispanic Leviathan co-founder contemplating a presidential run, a reprehensible political fixer with JUIF ERRANT tattooed to his arm, and a Cuban-American congressman set up for embezzlement—all so cozily interrelated as to constitute a soap opera set to evangelical neo-conservative GOP politics. An Iraqi veteran/independent contractor with a conscience named Hugh Eckhart and the lover of a murdered would-be monastic who is unsure of her Christianity but dead sure about exacting revenge named Sara KovÁ¡cs are the book’s two protagonists. They are foils seemingly intended to illustrate some obscure religious debate between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letter & Papers from Prison and Arthur McGill’s Death & Life. Hugh’s last name suggests the famous German mystic Meister Eckhart and Sara’s surname AndrÁ¡s KovÁ¡cs, founder of the neopagan Hungarian TÁ¡ltos Church.

Firebird is laced throughout with such religious references, interminable theological ramblings, and occasionally interesting descriptions of mystical experiences. The WojtyÅ‚a Society for Peace and International Cooperation is a Polish Catholic humanitarian NGO and Leviathan’s secret direct action smuggling wing. The covert all-male Covenant is described as “a secret club, maybe, an evangelical Skull & Bones” made up of the politically connected and influential. Characters experience spiritual epiphanies and the “fear and trembling” of encountering an obviously Protestant god. After one such kairos, Sara transforms into a mysterious figure crossing borders “back and forth, always silent,” smuggling refugees. And Hugh is haunted by the vision of an Angel after his tour of duty in Iraq, “a great radiant thing standing over the dead children, their wraithlike bodies on the cool concrete, the long spills of their mud-colored hair.” All this god talk is neither irksome nor enlightening. Just very, very mainstream Christian.

There are tantalizing glimpses of Ukraine—a back lot arms deal gone deadly wrong, Occupy riots in Kiev’s Maidan Square—but this fiction is set almost entirely in the nondescript universals of conference rooms, campaign fundraisers, hotel rooms, meetings in private restaurants, office rooms, cocktail parties, etc. The clandestine Russian “little green men” invasion of Ukraine, when it comes late in the book, is experienced only through TV coverage. This is literary bait-and-switch, or perhaps everything just falls short of what seems promised. Take FIREBIRD, that potentially explosive electronic dossier. It’s stolen by Hugh out of guilt in an attempt to bring down Leviathan who then attempts to pass it on to Sara who is promptly kidnapped by various plotters. FIREBIRD finally falls into the hands of the Cuban-American congressman who misjudges how to exploit it and is forced to “commit suicide.” The electronic dossier quietly evaporates two-thirds of the way through and by the end of Firebird: “Leviathan was pumping gas out of Slovakia. The billionaire had been elected president, and though besieged by investigations, had announced his intention to seek a second term.”

Can you say anti-climactic?

Aside from a mention of Stravinsky’s opera, Powell fails to capitalize on his book’s namesake and default McGuffin. There are no allusions to the fabled firebird of Slavic mythology for instance, certainly a missed opportunity. And despite some last minute action Firebird peters out by the end, feeling partial and incomplete. Mark Powell has been lauded as “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation,” but this literary foray into international intrigue falls flat and ultimately disappoints.