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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
When my wife and I moved from Missoula, Montana to Chicago the summer of 2008, we lived in a ramshackle apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood with a kitchen full of cockroaches and a bedroom whose ancient walls had sprung a leak somewhere above our heads, so that bits of soggy plaster flaked off on us as we slept whenever it rained. To help pay the rent for that terrible apartment, I needed a job, and the only job I could get during those lean years was as a beer man at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.
Because of my time as a beer man, I can understand the source of inspiration for Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. During the "Star Spangled Banner" before every Bear's home game, two F2 fighter jets would perform a flyover. I'm not one to get emotional, but when actual jets are flying overhead, when the sound of the engines is powerful enough to not only be deafening but to somehow shake you from the inside, when everyone around you is excited hoping the Bears might actually win one this week and also looking forward to seeing grown men inflict violence on one another and probably four or five beers deep already at noon on a Sunday, in that situation it's somehow impossible not to end up feeling almost tearfully patriotic, so that when it's time to break into spontaneous applause during the "freeeee-eeeee" in the last line of the song, you do so loudly, and this open expression of love of country feels perfectly natural and authentic.
During halftime of certain games the Bears would parade groups of soldiers in front of the crowd, so that the few thousand fans left in the stands and not in line for refreshments or the bathroom could cheer wildly for them while they reenlisted in the Army. I watched several of these reenlistments during my time as a beer man, and granted I may have been projecting a bit because I was never happy to be trapped up in the club seats with a full cooler weighing me down during halftime, but when I looked into the faces of those young men and women what I saw wasn't pretty. There was the look of deer in the headlights, but also sadness, disillusionment. The way a reenlistment works, at least at Soldier Field, is that the troops are "accepted" for three more years of service and then given either their papers or a certificate marking the occasion in a decorative leather binder. It seemed almost like a cheap trick to me, holding the ceremony at Soldier Field in front of all those fans, and I swear I thought some of those young soldiers were thinking about changing their minds up until the last minute. But again, maybe I was projecting.
I would guess that Mr. Fountain witnessed some similar mix of war and football--it's probably even more obscene in Texas--spent a second or two looking into the eyes of a soldier during halftime, spent a longer moment trying to get inside the younger man's mind, and had the first glimmer of an idea for Billy Lynn before he left the stadium.
The story he delivers doesn't disappoint, at least where it concerns spending time in the mind of a young soldier. We spend three hundred plus pages firmly in Billy's point of view while he is back from Iraq and enjoying (or enduring) a hero's tour through America after an embedded Fox news crew captures an engaging three minutes and forty-five second video of a firefight Billy's Bravo Squad was engaged in.
Due to the viral video, Billy in particular has become something of a national celebrity and hero. It's an interesting set-up because almost everything that happens in the novel feels dirty and exploitative--Bravo and Billy are visiting the Cowboy's stadium during halftime more to celebrate and enhance the Cowboy brand than anything else, and they are preoccupied with selling the movie rights to their story, the prospect of meeting Beyonce, ogling the cheerleaders, and drinking free booze--and yet the fact of their heroism is undeniable.
It's fertile ground for a novel, and Fountain does an excellent job of exploring this rift--the intersection of heroics and commerce--from Billy's point of view. Billy is humble, brave, troubled, thoughtful, and he's in possession of a kind of unassuming intelligence. I truly enjoyed looking out at he world through this character's eyes.
It's Fountain's portrayal of the world outside Billy's mind that caused problems for me. Why does he need to spice up the story with Beyonce? Why does he need the prospect of a movie deal? Hillary Swank? Why does the Jerry Jones stand-in owner of the Cowboys get so much face time? The reason for all of this is that Mr. Fountain is clearly fascinated (if appalled) by these aspects of American culture, and he is gambling that his readership will share his fascination. He's also probably aware, at least on some level, that his readership might be suffering from "Iraq fatigue", and so has made the decision to glitz up his story in a million little ways. And it almost works. The story is entertaining, and it's also pretty fun. But by filling the book up with so many glittery bright lights, isn't Mr. Fountain making an ugly assumption about his readership, namely that we're all a bunch of iPhone scrolling, US Weekly reading, ADD suffering, intellectually barren automatons?
That might be going a bit too far, and I'm not sure it's a bad thing that an author offer a somewhat veiled critique of his readership when the novel he has constructed is a critique of American culture as a whole--after all, his readership will be mostly Americans (i.e., members of the culture he is critiquing). The bigger problem though is that by extending his critique outward Fountain allows the focus to shift away from Billy Lynn and the other men of Bravo. The experience of reading this book, after I'd gotten over its novelty, grew tiresome, because I simply do not care to read fiction about Fountain's take on Beyonce, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, Billy's completely ridiculous tryst with the cheerleader Faison, or the machinations of the modern film industry. So many of the minor characters in this book--I am thinking of Norm, Albert and Faison, but there are others--were two-dimensional cliches.
Also, I like to think of myself as a fairly well-informed person with regard to world events, the Global War on Terror, etc., and I found the situation presented in the book a bit far-fetched. The inciting incident here "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal" looks something like this: The duration of the video is 3:45, it has aired again and again on Fox News, and in it Billy rushes to the aid of his friend Shroom, dispatches six or so insurgents, and holds Shroom in his arms while he dies. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think a video like this exists--I have seen some fairly captivating combat footage, but it doesn't make for good entertainment. The camera is usually out of focus, the sound of gunshots is jarring, and the prospect of actual death makes viewing uncomfortable. Given the experience of watching videos like this one, I have a hard time believing that the video as it is presented in the book would be aired on Fox News at all, let alone be viewed millions of times, prompt a "Victory Tour" and result in Americans all over the Heartland slapping Bravos on the back and congratulating them on a job well done. The truth is, presented with a video such as this, most people would experience mild discomfort and change the channel. By portraying America as a place where citizens watch video of a soldier holding his dying friend and are so out of touch that all they have to offer are high-fives, Fountain is taking the low view. "Yew ARE America," says one Clevelander to Billy in the early pages. My reaction, when I read a line like that, is first, to note that people in Cleveland don't talk that way, and second, to approach the rest of the book with a certain amount of skepticism. Fountain is generous with Billy as a character, but there's a touch of meanness to his portrayal of almost every other person in this book.
Beyond the video of the firefight, there are other conceivability problems. Did such a "Victory Tour" ever occur? Would even the callous U.S. government government be so bold (and stupid) as to send Bravo back to war and risk the PR nightmare that would result if they were to be killed in action? Would Bravo be legally allowed to sell the movie rights to their story?
I don't want to get too negative, because this book is a very entertaining read. I would place Mr. Fountain alongside recent authors I have read and enjoyed including Jess Walter, Jonathan Evison, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Tropper. I love these authors and love their books, but something that bothers me slightly about all of them is an airbrushing, or a kind of romcomification of modern masculinity. I'm a little tired of reading books where the male protagonist could be played by Steve Carrel in the movie version (I know Billy Lynn is a little young for Steve Carrel, but use your imagination, try a Splash-era Tom Hanks). Its also fair to say that my appreciation of Billy Lynn was blunted by reading The Yellow Birds just before it, which takes a view of masculinity that is so starkly the opposite of the aforementioned group of novelists that it seems at times anachronistic. It's difficult not to read The Yellow Birds as response and rebuttal to books like Billy Lynn, and it's difficult not to compare and contrast the two author's visions. Though Powers' book is much darker it left me in an optimistic mood, while Fountain's more lighthearted fare left me with the feeling that America may indeed be hopeless.
Out of 10: 8.0