Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Ecco; 320 pages; $25.99).
Good literature should test our limits and push our boundaries. The best novels should force us as readers out of our comfort zones. If those novels feature touchy subjects, then bravo! Novelists should never shy away from any issue, no matter how much the topic makes readers or critics uncomfortable. How better to ponder life’s big questions than in the pages of a book? The novels that focus on The Way We Live Now and even The Meaning of Life are the precise ones that stay with us because they are so memorable. For the rest of our lives, we remember what it was like to read them for the first time and the countless times after. The best authors take risks and are not afraid of the repercussions. Take John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, Yann Martel, Toni Morrison, Kathryn Stockett, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few.
That is what Ben Fountain does in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that satirizes warfare, football, and pop culture. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a literary tour-de-force and a modern-day Catch-22. Not only is the story an entertaining, laugh-out-loud satire, but it is also well-written and brilliant. However, as much as I loved it, I do not think Fountain’s novel is for everyone.
Fountain’s story takes place during a single day, over the span of a few hours. It is Thanksgiving Day of an unnamed year in George W. Bush’s presidency. The main character is Billy Lynn; Fountain tells the story from Billy’s point of view, often using strange bits of streams of consciousness and flashbacks. Billy is one of eight members of Bravo Squad who survived the Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal, a fictional skirmish in the Iraq War. Since a Fox News crew was embedded with the soldiers, the whole thing went live on television; Americans were glued to their TVs. The Bravos became instant heroes and instant celebrities, even though they are ready for neither.
At nineteen, Billy is clueless: “Self-confidence has been a struggle these past two weeks, this sense of treating water way over his head. He’s too young. He doesn’t know enough.” The reader cannot help but feel for Billy and for the rest of his squad. They were only doing their jobs and do not see themselves as heroes. For them, it is literally kill or be killed.
In a hilarious propaganda-like maneuver, the Bush administration brings Bravo Squad home for a victory tour. Their stops are all in key swing-states for the Republicans. Everyone wants to shake each Bravo’s hand, get autographs, and take pictures with the boys. “As one trembly old guy in Cleveland” puts it, “Yew ARE America.”
The Bravos participate in an extravagant halftime show at the now-defunct Texas Stadium in a Thanksgiving Day game between the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. Destiny’s Child is scheduled to perform. The Bravos are psyched at the prospect of meeting and greeting Destiny’s Child and the Cowboys.
As Fountain writes, “This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it…deep within the sheltering womb of all things American—football, Thanksgiving, [and] television.”
Are they being used? Of course they are. But the kicker is they know it: “Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed.”
The “party” cannot continue indefinitely. In two days, the squad heads back to Iraq. Unfinished business hangs over their heads, though. Hollywood wants to make a movie of Bravo’s bravery. The squad thinks big bucks are in their future. For the duration of their victory tour, Albert, a Hollywood producer, has been on them like bees to honey. Albert “is a man who direct-dials the likes of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones and whose movies have featured such money stars as Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, [and] two of the four Baldwin brothers.” In other words, he is a mover and a shaker.
Albert believes in the film and in Bravo’s story. So does actress Hilary Swank. She wants to play one of the male roles in the film or even consolidate two soldiers into one character. Bravo is not happy about this. Not all of Hollywood is as enthused as Albert and Hilary. Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have backed out. George Clooney is a “maybe” and then a “no.”
Billy learns it is a Catch-22. A star cannot commit to the picture until a major studio is on board. Then again, a major studio will not give the green light unless a star is attached to the movie. It is a paradox, “so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way” that all of Bravo “can identify.”
Fountain does a superb and funny job of spoofing Hollywood and movies. But he does not stop there. Fountain draws comparisons between the culture of warfare and the culture of football. His assessment is interesting and surprisingly apt. When the Bravos visit the Cowboys’ locker room, even they are intimidated. “The players,” Fountain describes, “seem so much more martial than any Bravo. They are bigger, stronger, thicker, badder, their truck-sized chins could bulldoze small buildings and their thighs bulge like load-bearing beams.” The players crank Testosterone, “their warrior aura ramps up exponentially as they assemble themselves for the game.”
The players’ gear fills Billy with “shock and awe.” When the team travels, loading and transporting their gear is akin to loading and transporting soldiers’ gear. The support the players’ receive flabbergasts Billy. The players “are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance.” Billy arrives at a thought, “Send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys–how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans?”
As if reading Billy’s thoughts, several players are very curious about Iraq. “Huh, fah real doe. But like you ever cap somebody you know of? Like, fire yo’ piece and dey go down, you done that?” The players want to know what it is like to kill. One of the players takes Billy to the side, “We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you. Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that? Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out.” When Billy tells them to enlist in the Army, the players laugh at him. They have a real job, they tell him. Fountain truly is at his best here in his fine use of satire.
As much as I love this novel, I feel it is not a book for everyone. Those with loved ones serving in the armed forces may feel offended. You see, it is one thing to make fun of governments, administrations, Hollywood, football, and popular culture. But it is quite something else to satirize wars in which people die.
I also fear that Fountain ridicules the troops. In his book, the members of Bravo are often inebriated, stoned, sex-crazed, and vulgar to the point of profane. Many, like Billy, are delinquents. Billy is serving in the army to escape jail-time. While his cause was noble, it was still illegal. Billy is not the only person in his squad on the wrong path. Perhaps Fountain writes it this way to show how the Army can make boys into men. At least I hope that is his intention.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not all spoof. Fountain manages to give us some very serious and somber instances as well. Bravo attends the funeral of a fellow soldier and deals with protestors. A member of their squad loses his legs. Billy’s sister worries he will be killed and urges him to run away and hide out. A waiter at the game thinks of joining the Army for the signing bonus since he cannot support his family.
Perhaps the most sobering of all: Billy and his unit worry they will not make it back home after their next deployment. This is the best piece of literature on the Iraq War. Yes, it did offend me at times but that is just the very nature of warfare. It isn’t pretty nor is it neat and flowery. If war literature should always be gritty, real, and memorable, then Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is all these things and more.