Monday, August 26, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I just gave this book five stars on Goodreads and it wanted me to recommend it to people "because they like sports"--wha?  Just because this book takes place on one day during a Cowboys football game does not mean it has anything to do with sports.

Bravo squad is on a "Victory Tour" after a firefight that an embedded FOX news team has caught on tape.  The men from Bravo squad are immediately sensations and are brought home to be paraded around the country for two weeks to drum up support for an unpopular war.  The blurb on the front cover of this novel has Karl Marlantes (of Matterhorn fame) raving that this is the "Catch-22 of the Iraq War."  And I think I could get on board with that.  There are definite echoes of Heller and Vonnegut running throughout.  In fact, the main character is named "Billy" which makes me wonder if it is a nod to Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim.

Billy is still trying to get his head around the fact that his buddy and mentor, Shroom, died on the field as Billy was trying to save him during the aforementioned firefight. You really get the sense of the camaraderie,  especially in scenes like this where Shroom would:

say "I love you" to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone's soul.  -pg. 61
So, Bravo is whipped back home (but they have to go back to Iraq soon--which is the elephant in the room that no one on this media blitz tour seems to address) and shoved in the spotlight to make a grateful nation all weepy and pumped for more war.  In the background during the entire day, an agent who has been assigned to them is busily calling and texting his Hollywood contacts to see about getting a movie made about the ordeal.  Meanwhile, people keep coming up and pawing at the squad and issuing their heartfelt thanks which Fountain portrays in a poetic way, highlighting the buzzwords while tuning out the rest of the monotonous blathering:

            terrRist
                                           freedom
             evil
                              nina leven
                                                nina leven
troops
                            currj
             support
                                  sacrifice
                          Bush
      values
God

And so we reach the culmination of this tour, the Thanksgiving Day football game.  Fountain sets it deep in the heart of Cowboys nation and does an amazing job of using football and the whole retail economy it engenders, and even the sheer magnitude of the players as a metaphor for America.  There is a scene in the equipment room where the Bravo squad is shown a whole wall of shoes, fifteen different styles of face masks, "twenty twenty-five hundred-count boxes" of chewing gum in five flavors for the players.  Every possible thing necessary to sustain these elite athletes and the entire ecosystem that rests on them.  Billy notes that where else, other than America, could someone have access to such nutritive diets as to even raise these behemoths. Just trying to comprehend the level of science that goes into creating the perfect helmet, the amount of money that goes into advertising at the games, the number of people on the payroll at the stadium--is overwhelming. It is all so huge and based on something that is not real. A game that is this all-consuming machine.  Buy. Buy. Buy.

The climax of the story (sexual innuendo intended) is at half-time when no less than three marching bands take the field with drumming like a primal heartbeat that backs up what Billy's mother would term a "hoochie-coochie" show put on by Destiny's Child.  It is this bizarre, ritualistic orgy that lacks only a virgin sacrifice.  Or maybe that's what Billy is--since they make him and the rest of Bravo squad stand in the middle of the confusion in order to "honor" these heroes.  And what is Billy, but a nineteen-year-old virgin who really didn't intend to be a hero?

The action, the dialogue, the whole book is pretty darn near perfect.  Except for one thing that still has me stewing.  There's this really interesting thread on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1124839-an-iraq-veteran-s-response-to-billy-lynn-s-long-halftime-walk).  It's basically an Iraq war veteran's thoughts on the novel.  I didn't give it a whole lot of credence when I was skimming it because he starts out bashing the novel without having read it and kind of cherry picks dialogue and scenes out of context and without acknowledging that it's satire. So, I just kind of rolled my eyes at the time.  But, the more I think about some of his key points, the more I'm wondering if this vet was right.  This is not Ben Fountain's story to tell.  He did not serve.  Does he get to do this?  Or is he no better than the movie producers and politicians that he skewers in the novel?  Is he being equally unfair in using Billy for his own devices and political statements?  I'm not saying the things he uncovers in the book are not true or should not be said.  I'm just wondering if Fountain just doesn't get to have this story, as a civilian.  Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were there.  They put in their time.  They earned their stories, in other words.

Just something to consider while reading it.  I'm still giving it five stars. I still loved it.  And maybe a civilian writing a veteran's story is no different than a female author writing a male character (or vice versa).  Maybe empathy is enough. Whatever the case, I always carry around my college English professor's adage, "Trust the art, not the artist."  And this was some pretty fine art.

<I checked this book out of my library, but plan on purchasing it.>

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