Sunday, January 25, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Cheers to a good country song.
To another long work week gone.
And, yeah, I'm raising my glass to those saving our ass overseas.
-"Ain't Worth the Whiskey" by Cole Swindell

After a Fox News embedded reporter captures Billy Lynn's Bravo Squad heroically preventing an ambush, the soldiers are brought home to travel the country on a victory tour, speaking and doing meet and greets in malls, city halls, etc., culminating in an appearance at the halftime show of the Cowboys' game on Thanksgiving (set in about 2004-05). Billy, the book's protagonist who was particularly brave during the battle, is only 19 years old, and struggles to process the stresses of his newfound quasi-celebrity, his family's fear for his safety and general moderate dysfunction, and normal 19 year old stuff, like trying to get the number of the Cowboys' cheerleader who he makes out with after their press conference.  Meanwhile, Bravo Squad also has to deal with the movie producer trying to make their story into a movie and how much they might make from such a venture.

Even though I highlighted a number of passages in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I went with these Cole Swindell lyrics because they perfectly exemplify Fountain's thesis: that the way Americans think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are detached from reality, and that the way we "support our troops" is by turns insensitive, ridiculous, depressing and hilarious.

Throughout the novel Billy encounters folks who want to "support the troops," by earnestly praising him or awkwardly thanking him or asking him questions that are at times stupid or personal or callous.  Many talk about "nina leven" and "terrRr," most say they're praying for him, some drop in something casually or vaguely racist, but none of them understand what he has gone through, is going through or will have to face when they go back to Iraq for eleven more months after the football game (and probably longer after that, if they survive).  One man tells Billy that seeing him shoot insurgents while tending to his dying friend was one of the proudest moments of his life, not stopping to think for a moment that it was the worst day of Billy's.  At one point during negotiations regarding funding the potential movie about Bravo's exploits, a rich guy, who never served, growls at Billy and his sergeant that he's the only reason that the movie has a chance of being made (not realizing that the only reason the movie has a chance of being made is because Bravo Squad killed people and suffered its own casualties).

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children.  They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.  He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children.  These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants.  Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

Fountain argues that so much of what we consider "supporting the troops," like the line in Swindell's song, is really just to make ourselves feel good, that we're contributing something, for the five minutes that spend thinking about it, to events that we know nothing about.

I heard this book compared to Catch-22, and while it wasn't nearly as subtle or scathingly hilarious as that classic, it did highlight the absurdities of war in a very familiar way.  Overall I thought it was a good book that definitely made me re-evaluate how I "support the troops."  One thing I feel like I should note is that as far as I can tell, Fountain is not a veteran himself.  While many of his observations made sense to me, I am also not a veteran, so I wonder if those who did serve agree with his point of view.

Ben Fountain went to Carolina

There was lots more to talk about regarding the Bravos and masculinity, but again, I don't know if Fountain portrayed them thus because that's how he thinks young soldiers behave or if they actually behave that way (see above).  Also, I felt I had blathered on long enough.


Brent Waggoner said...

So, this sounds really appealing, but the tone of the excerpt sounds a little... patronizing? Is that consistent with the vibe of the book? The lack of subtlty you mention concerns me--I love love love Catch-22 but I don't think I'd want to read something similar that bludgeoned me over the head with its views.

billy said...

Based on your concerns I didn't do the book justice with my review. That excerpt was probably the most extreme example of anyone directly commenting on the theme. Most of the time it was left to the reader to infer. And when I say it wasn't as subtle as Catch-22, I mean that in the same way that I'd say something isn't as beautiful as the Mona Lisa: it's a compliment to even be mentioned in the same conversation as the best (caveat: I haven't read Catch-22 in a very long time, so maybe it's not as subtle as I remember. For the purposes of this review/comment, assume that Catch-22 is brilliantly subtle).

To recap: it wasn't too bludgeonous

Brent Waggoner said...

Sweet. I'm going to pick it up then.

RA said...

I think your review is spot on as as far as the strengths of the book, but otherwise overly generous. 'Lynn' is very smart and very funny, with great satirical set-pieces and a good ear for voices. There are great sentences, and laugh-out-loud lines. And yet, it's also disappointing. The biggest failure for me are the characters (or charact-titures). They're either broad caricatures, or ridiculously idealized, or, in the case, of Billy, a stand-in for the author's mainstream liberalism. Not that characters necessarily have to have depth or be realistic, it's just that 'Lynn' are all so limited: well-worn types for a specific audience (Billy is as much a small-town Texas kid as I am Caliph Abu Bakr al-Bagdahdi). The style draws heavily on Mailer's long-form journalism, without any of Mailer's profound weirdness. It's the perfect NPR novel - reflexively anti-war and anti-conglomerate with only superficial analysis, and little first-hand knowledge of soldiers or football, or Hollywood, for that matter, but enough research thrown in to give it a veneer of authenticity. The cheerleader romance is just about the corniest thing I've ever read, utterly banal and sentimental, and betraying everything interesting about the book. And being saved because the general is a Steelers' fan? I keep trying to see it as irony or parody, but nope.The fact that 'Lynn' so entertaining anyway speaks to the author's skill (or to the NPR liberal cringing inside of me).