Monday, February 4, 2013

Review of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by Ben Fountain. In Plaza de


The killing football fields of home

In memory of "American Sniper" Chris Kyle:

“It is so hard becoming a civilian," Kyle said. "When you are in the military, everything you do is for the greater good. And as a civilian, everything you do is for your own good.

“When you’re in the military, you are facing life and death every day. And then you come home and hear people who are unhappy about the little things. And you think, are you kidding me? Two weeks ago, I was shot. And this is your problem. … They train us how to become warriors, but then they don’t teach us and train us how to become businessmen.”

– Dallas Morning News, Feb. 3, 2013

I am late getting to the party on Ben Fountain’s acclaimed, relentless novel that is not a war novel but a combattere interruptus about what happens to soldiers when they return home. And then have to go back. And maybe not come home. I don’t actually know if that’s a literary (or Latin) term, any more than I know why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk didn’t win the National Book Award. I’ll let the writing speak for itself, after these digressions.

First, a confession. When I started reading, I was immediately taken with how much the language of young warriors rang true and has remained so constant over so many conflicts. Direct and no-bullshit, it is chiefly concerned, in no special order, with sex, chow, bitching, getting wasted, dumbasses, boredom, loneliness, and not getting killed. In this complex military world both truncated and expansive, terrible things become comic. The mundane leads to transcendence. Even vulgarity is destroyed and reborn holy. Consider the word “fuck.” Among troops, it assumes any syntactic form, always with complete precision. You could make whole sentences out of fuck. Fuck knows I’ve fucking heard them. I thought, this fucking guy fucking knows his shit. When the fuck did he serve?
Of course, the Dallas-based author didn’t, and never said he did. I put the book down when that dawned on me, feeling a little duped but mostly stupid for my assumption. I thought there was a rule about this. But I had an honest moment with myself: this book wasn’t about Iraq any more than The Sun Also Rises was about World War I. And how in any event it is the task of the writer of fiction to elicit the truths that lie deeply embedded inside illusions of “reality.” Especially concerning the fog of war. I had to finish the novel. Some in the military may disagree, but I think Fountain did his job and got it right.
The story vehicle is that of a small squad nicknamed the Bravos, whose 15-plus minutes of fame follow a deadly firefight that was caught by a network news crew and became a viral video. The Bravos are brought home for a two-week leave and publicity tour culminating in an appearance at Cowboy stadium (the old one) as halftime stars at the Thanksgiving game. The day is witnessed through the acutely reflective mind of Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who lost two friends and won a Silver Star in the action and is at once both innocent and older than Homer.

Billy and his buddies pass some edgy time before the game drinking, eating, bitching, and fantasizing over hooking up with the halftime act, Destiny’s Child. They’re also in surreal talks with a semi-famous Hollywood producer, trying to land a movie deal based on their experiences. He’s got Hilary Swank interested if she can play the role of the macho intellectual squad leader, Sgt. Dime. Some investors will only sign on if the story can be re-cast in World War II, because, you know, that was the greatest generation. Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby also may deal himself in, but only if he can get the Bravos to take an obscenely huge cut in their share of the potential deal, from $100,000 each down to $5,000. Everybody has to make sacrifices, Norm reminds them, as Mr. Jones, his armed bodyguard, stands by.

At every turn, Billy and his comrades confront a volatile mix of admiration, fear and ignorance. His sister, one of the book’s strongest characters, wants him to run away to an anti-war sanctuary. A Cowboys cheerleader from his hometown wants him to come back to her. Which Billy knows will never happen. The fans at the game treat the Bravos like sacred souvenirs. Everybody wants a piece of them and no one knows why.

It makes for a cold schooling: Soldiers, like artists, are heroes in the abstract, and problems in the flesh.
Here’s how Billy sees it:

  • “Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory … The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”
  • “No one spits. No one calls him baby-killer. On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same.”
  • “It seems to Billy a flat-out miracle that any of them are still alive. So they’ve lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches, the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. 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… Billy sensed the true mindfucking potential of it on their first trip outside the wire, when Shroom advised him to place his feet one in front of the other instead of side by side, that way if an IED blew low through the Humvee Billy might lose only one foot instead of two.”
  • “Billy spots Mr. Jones [Oglesby’s bodyguard] nearby, discussing the line with several other suits. Cowboys by four? ’Boys by three? They chuckle like men comparing the talents of a carnally shared woman, and Billy would like to go over there and beat their faces in. He doesn’t know why he’s so offended, but he is, maybe it’s Mr. Jones’ gun that sets him off, something about the presumption of it, the ignorance, the sheer fucking ego of carrying around an instrument of deadly force. Like you know? You wanna see what deadly force can do? Bravo can show you, Bravo does deadly like you wouldn’t believe, the kind that will break your mind and make you wish you’d never spilled out of your mother’s crack.”
  • “Maybe it’s not as much as you were hoping for, [Norm Oglesby says] but I think most people would agree, something is better than nothing.”     
“Something would be nice,” Dime says. “Something would be great. But it’s”—he breaks off with a choking gasp—“it’s just, I don’t know it’s just so sad, sir. We thought you kind of liked us.”

    “But I do!” Norm cries, lurching upright in his chair. “I do like you! I think the world of you fine young men.”

    Dime clasps his hands to his heart. “See?” he gushes to Billy? “He does like us! He likes us so much he’s going to fuck us in the face.”
  • “For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he’s lived what he’s lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects. To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? … Thank you! the nice people call after him. Thank you for your service!

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, By Ben Fountain, HarperCollins, 2012, is available here.
Rod Davis is a literary columnist for Plaza de Armas.