Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: A review

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Billy Lynn is an innocent, decent but uneducated 19-year-old from Stovall, Texas, who found himself in the Army as a result of an encounter with the local police. He had a choice of going to jail or going to the Army. He chose the Army.

And so, sometime later, he winds up in Iraq as a member of Bravo Company, and one life-changing day on Al-Ansakar Canal, his company is engaged in a fierce firefight from which eight members emerge physically undamaged.

As circumstance would have it, there was a Fox News crew embedded with Bravo and they filmed the three minutes and forty-three seconds of the intense warfare on the canal. They got it all on film, including Billy Lynn defending his mortally wounded sergeant and personal guru Shroom as he was attacked by a number of insurgents. This played on Fox News over and over again and went viral until it was familiar to everyone in the country - a country that badly needed heroes.

The country found those heroes in Bravo and especially in Billy Lynn. The Bush Administration, quick to see the PR implications, pulled the company out of Iraq and brought them home to receive medals and to go on a "victory tour." As we meet them, they are at the end of that tour and one day removed from having to return to Iraq and the war.

It is a cold and rainy Thanksgiving Day and Bravo is in Dallas for the Cowboys game. They are to be a part of the halftime entertainment alongside Destiny's Child and the Cowboys cheerleaders.

But before that part of the day gets underway, they mingle among the fans and the high-rollers in the owner's suite and, everywhere they go, people ask them about the war. The questioners prompt them to say that things are getting better and that we had to do what we did and ask them what they were thinking during the battle. And Billy earnestly tries to answer honestly, "Everything was blowing up and they were shooting our guys and I just went for it, I really wasn't thinking at all."
His chief fear up to the moment the shooting started being that of fucking up. Life in the Army is miserable that way. You fuck up, they scream at you, you fuck up some more and they scream some more, but overlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained fuckups looms the ever-present prospect of the life-fucking fuckup, a fuckup so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption.
I've never been in the military so I have no reference for judging the accuracy of the sentiment expressed in that quote. Thus, I turned to the Army veteran of Vietnam beside me in the bed and read the quote to him. His assessment was that it was a succinct and accurate summation of life in the Army. I'll accept that.

In fact, this entire book had the aura of verisimilitude. Ben Fountain seems to have understood the sentiments of the country at that time and especially the sentiments in Bush-country Texas, as well as that of the Army grunts on the ground who were actually fighting and dying in this war. He has understood them and has conveyed them to the reader with intense and razor-sharp insight. He makes clear the vast gulf that exists between what the country wants to believe about the war and the way it actually is for those who fight it. Perhaps it is ever thus in all wars.

We see all of this through the eyes of Billy Lynn. We see the chickenhawk "patriots" sporting their lapel flag pins and sticking their "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers on their SUVs; the "Thank you for your service" ordinary citizens - utterly sincere perhaps but utterly without a clue. We meet the "king of self-esteem" Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby as well as his coterie of wealthy colleagues. We meet a born-again Cowboys cheerleader with whom Billy falls immediately in love. And we meet a veteran Hollywood producer who wants to make a movie about Bravo's experiences and spends the day of the game trying to work out a deal.

And, too, we meet the oversized players who long to experience a vicarious taste of war and we see them as Billy sees them.
They are huge. They could be a new species, or throwbacks to some lost prehistoric age when humans the size of Clydesdales roamed the earth. TV's toy-soldier scale doesn't do them justice, these blown-up versions of the human frame with their beer-keg heads and redwood necks and arms packing softball-sized bulges, plus something not quite right about their faces, their eyes too close or too far apart, a thumb-mashed puttiness to cheekbone and nose. All the parts are there but the whole is out of joint, a hitch of proportion, of cranial size relative to facial scheme, as if by achieving superhero scale the players outstripped the blueprint of the human face.
And -
Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants.
The soldiers of Bravo, on the other hand, are ordinary human beings. Ordinary human beings who for a few minutes in their lives have done completely extraordinary things. Ben Fountain brings it all to us with a wrenching clarity that makes us feel we are there.

And did I mention that this is also a very funny book? There is an intense black-humor throughout the book that feels absolutely real and spot-on. Fountain's book has been compared to Catch-22. It seems an apt comparison.



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2 comments:

  1. I read this awhile ago and liked it a lot. There was a surreal quality to it, which I'm sure is how the members of Bravo company were feeling. I thought it went on a little too long, but overall all a really interesting book.

    Found you at Carole's Books you Loved link-up!

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    1. "Surreal" is a very good word to describe Bravo's experience, particularly as it applies to the day of the Cowboys game.

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