Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) is one hell of a good book –in conception, language, characters and sustained story telling. It surprises, and keeps on surprising, in part by working against expectations. I began it, after exuberant recommendations by friends, expecting a war story, set in Iraq and bringing up to date the memoir-fiction we’ve been familiar with since at least WW I: a soldier narrator, his dozen buddies, fear and adrenaline, anger at the stupidity of superiors, shooting, lots of shooting, illumination rounds at night, letters home, dreams of women — the more recently written the more explicit–, good friends dead — the more recent the more explicit– and finally, survival, fed up with the war but proud of coming through it.
It turns out Billy Lynn is not that at all. It is about war but is not a war story –at least in the traditional sense. The actual fighting, for which they are being lionized, takes place in memory.
“It was only when they fanned out to search for the correct number of severed limbs that Mango sank to his knees in a blubbering heap.”
It is a story, the kind of which there ought to be many more, about war as a feature of American life, here a spectacle, a production, like a half-time show. The soldiers are worshiped as Beyoncé is worshiped; people gushing, touching, carried away by emotions of proximity, shared courage by proxy. An American story about Americans who do not fight and yet love war, who flock to the Bravos on their multi-city tour to proclaim their pride and support.
Or, as Fountain has it in one of many riffs on the cliches of war-support (which are often highlighted with sometimes disconcerting typographic emphasis.)
Billy is just enough unsure of himself to wonder about all this.
It is a story about America and American’s stew of patriotism, class division, high-rolling entertainment, sex and football, above all football, taking place in a very contemporary America. References to e-bay, texting, googling, and Christian wing-nuts picketing the game make us know, this is the time we live in.
The story opens in the back seats of an enormous white Humvee where 8 soldiers, well buzzed on “Jack and Coke” are approaching the vast dome of Texas Stadium for the annual Thanksgiving football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. Caught by FOX News embeds at a fierce fire fight at the Al Ansakar Canal in Iraq they have been on the road for two weeks, flown all around the country as Bravo Squad, genuine Iraq war heroes. Today is the big finale, after which they go back. Heroes or not, the war is not over for them.
Billy Lynn may be the youngest, at 19 years old. He is certainly the shyest. He is still a virgin, “technically,” and longing for his first real girlfriend “someone to mash into body and soul.” He is the most willing to own up to his own lack of knowledge and the most willing to turn to his Sergeant for advice and counseling. It is through his eyes and thoughts that we see the day swirling around them. And he is a perfect fit in his unschooled but serious self reflection, not the narrator but a close cousin to the naive narrators of many works of fiction. We like him. He is modest. He is sweet. He is a hero by chance not by choice. He recognizes falsity all around him, and in the strange PR tour they’ve been sent on. He recognizes it but does not condemn those who sent him on it, or the gushing fans he meets. Through him we see the utter bizarreness of the American proxy for war, professional football.
We smile at his thought that if only these behemoths could be transported, as is, helmets, shoulder pads and all, to the war, it would be over in days: no “bunch of skinny hajiis in manskirts and sandles [would] stand a chance against these all Americans!”
He exists in a world of other very interesting characters, some his Bravo buddies, some from the Cowboys organization.
And Albert, the producer, who “can talk the sun down and then talk it up again,” explaining the film-making process –why a rescue story is just the ticket, why Hillary Swank’s interest in playing the lead doesn’t suggest they are gay, why the real star they need is “not interested in a profile leveling ensemble piece” — is terrific. In fact, without doing a word count, I would bet there is more about making a movie of the fight than the fight itself — as appropriate for the America of Fountain’s conception. The Texans who approach Bravo after seeing them on the jumbotron can find nothing but cliches to mouth while those who approach the producer, “have a great idea for a movie.” Albert runs riff after riff as tries to pull the deal together, calling the Bravos “Equal opportunity American heroes for the 21st century.” He is constantly on the phone trying to sell the idea, telling one investor while “hunkered down in the blackberry position” that,
“It’s all about feeling good about America again. Think Rocky meets Platoon and you’re on the right track.”
If movie making occupies a major part of the novel, being thanked and re-thanked by fans — of football and warriors– gets a lion’s share as well. The fawning is done kindly for the most part, but the cumulative effect shows the yawning chasm between those who have fought a war and those who simply glory in it.
Squad members Sergeant Dime (the kind of man you’d rather die than disappoint,) Mango and Lodis get a fair amount of time as does the metro-sexual Cowboys’ handler, Josh (“your basic corporate pussy boy”.) Billy’s Rush Limbaugh-like father, with his “default setting of contempt, sarcasm and general hatefulness,” and his sister, Kathryn, having found that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld all escaped military service pleading with him to not go back, give us a picture of his before Bravo life, “chum in the shark tank of family dynamics.” All are drawn with observant detail in Fountain’s richly inventive language, line after line of simile and comparison that, however inventive, never seem forced or stretched too far.
Billy’s pelvic thrusting encounter with a Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleader, convinced that God ordained their meeting, and his dreamy hopes for a quiet, down-home life with her is erotic, hilarious and touching by turns.
Comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller are useful, if one needs comparisons, but Fountain goes off on his own. Unlike Catch 22 to which many have compared it, almost none of the action takes place in the war. The satire is not directed at the military but at the civilians who LOVE their boys –until something is required of them. The withering of the promise of big money for their story to the actual fact of what is offered is scathingly told. When Sergeant Dime tells the Cowboys’ owner to his face what he thinks of him, we cheer, for all of the soldierly, crude assault of language. There is a superb bit with a more Hellerish cast when “Vice President Cheney shows up on a morale boosting stop at FOB Viper, Dime and Shroom cheered with such sick abandon that even Captain Tripp registered the savage mockery of it.”
Fountain’s got soldier slang down perfectly, though he’s never been one himself. “A fuckwit conversation,” “a life-fucking fuck up,” worries that the two weeks away from fighting will lead to the “pussifcation of Bravo,” nicknames that change Lotus to Load, and Sykes to Sucks… a soldier who has maxed out his credit card on porn, another who claims, seriously, to have had a vertical lap-dance from a wife whose husband was shaking hands all around immerse us in the world of still adolescent soldiers stoked on barely controlled primal emotions, “living the Russian-roulette lifestyle every minute of every day.”
For all of the pell-mell satire, Billy and Fountain have time to pause for the big things
The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random How that shit does twist your mind.
In Fountain’s inspired balance of truth and satire, Billy finds himself during the pre-game warmup in a zen like trance watching the footballs kicked by the punter rise and seem to float again and again, which leads to thoughts of his dead friend, Shrum, “a citizen now of the realms of neutral buoyancy,’ and all the serious questions he can not quite get a handle on:
It’s hard not to praise Fountain too much for such a pattern breaking take on contemporary “war” fiction, his use of Billy to say some honest truths about America.
One gets the idea that these are Fountain’s sentiments exactly.
The novel follows his fine collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, (2007)where you can see all the makings, in invention of story and language that come full flower in Billy Lynn. We certainly hope Fountain has other work coming.
The Audible reading by Oliver Wyman is excellent — a chance to enjoy it twice over.