Obvious, if totally justified, comparisons to Catch-22 abound in reviews of Ben Fountain's new and completely satisfying novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Sure, it's funny, surreal, rich in the gallows humor of the absurdity that is war and, to be clear, this war in particular. But to Mr. Bib's mind an equally apt comparison might be to Joseph Heller's other book of interiority, back story, cultural critique and the cruel and honest humor of the sociological art that one demands of what they call the Great American Novel.
That's Something Happened, with its hyper-aware first-person protagonist Bob Slocum and the alternately despairing, hopeful, funny tension of him (and Heller) telling a story that we know will absolutely not end well. The magic that Ben Fountain achieves in capturing his own hero's apprehension of not just what he sees and feels, but what he and we might reasonably be required to make of it is a wonder, and so I recommend this book big-time.
The books' brilliant conceit is the story of a single, and singular day in the life and stateside "Victory Tour" of Bravo Company, or at least of its eight surviving members, including the putative all-American war and media hero, one smart, sarcastic, war-weary, war-amped 19- year-old: Specialist Billy Lynn of
. Fountain, author of a short story collection called
Encounters with Che Guevara, is himself a Texan, so that any messing with from him arrives from the heart, absent malice. There is no animus in his writing, patriots, not toward the obviously comic villains and buffoons you might expect, demand, be delighted in: sharky movie producer, football team owner, drunken fans, brutish and cynical players, a "Swift Boat" Republican political heavy, and hordes of everyday Americans themselves. Texans, mostly, to be fair. Or unfair.
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The focus of the day's bizarre (or not) itinerary? Halftime celebration at the big Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game, football being the frighteningly, touchingly, absurdly sublimated passive-aggressive behavior of a nation in denial, but so very happy to celebrate it - denial, that is, and fake violence and communal know-nothingism where the celebration subordinates, easily, whatever it is we are all supposedly celebrating. But you knew that. Beer and automobile commercial hype and plenty of chauvinism, pride, hoo-rah, objectification of women, more beer and mindless, empty ceremony. Watch that great scene in John Sayles' brilliant filmLone Star, where the hero's (Chris Cooper) ex-wife, a football freak is portrayed by Frances McDormand as "Bunny," who is something like a meth freak as regards the game.
!The eight men (one Bravo is injured, one dead) are meant to be "honored" by all this, which of course both excites (cheerleaders, free drinks, drugs, food, limo) but also scares (public humiliation, objectification, telling lies) the Bravos themselves, as it should. And ditto the audience. Yes, a story of fighting the Iraq War demands honest horror, death, empathy, irony and humor, all of which are delivered here by Fountain, but always with an eerie frisson of too-familiar, too-real events. As if meeting the famous sexy cheerleaders, being backstage with halftime performer Beyoncé, talking business patriotism with the Cowboys' multi-billionaire owner weren't enough, this reality-TV war/war story tour requires its own chaperon, in this case that Hollywood producer who, naturally, wants to sell the brave fighting men's exploits, tells them sexy-smart Hillary Swank is on board to star, and attempts to hustle everybody with cash via his cell phone before the sun (and public interest) sets on events of the heroic, celebratory day. Running jokes abound, not the least being that Swank, whom all the fellows adore, would nonetheless be portraying, weirdly, one of them, perhaps Billy, the big hero who tried to save a wounded comrade's life while - wait for it! - Fox News captured the whole fire-fight on video and brought us to this inevitable charade.
You might imagine this the stuff of farce, except that, one, it is so close to what we have
lived, by way of Fighter Pilot "Top Dumb" Dubya, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, WMD, "orange alerts" and that very big lie told by a famous general. And, two, the gravitas and authenticity of the Bravos' perspective and worldview as constructed by Fountain demand that we constantly slap ourselves upside the head. There is no phony, bullshit, dumb public patriotic sadism (however "well meant") that their experiences in battle cannot trump. And which they cannot endure. Until somebody messes with them. The loyalty and camaraderie they have for each other and to their shared experience challenges the weak and too-easy "support the troops" nonsense which so many of the civilians in this novel - with a few exceptions - embrace.
"As if drawing down energy through the stadium's blowhole, the applause slowly gathers volume and heft. People moving in the aisle stop and turn their way. The fans behind Bravo come to their feet, the prompt for a slow-motion standing ovation that rolls through their section in a gravity-defying backward wave. Soon the Jumbotron cuts to a hyperactive ad for Chevy trucks, but too late, people are already heading Bravo's way and ther is just no help for it and no escape.. Billy rises and assumes the stance for such occasions, back straight, weight balanced center-mass, a reserved yet courteous expression on his youthful face. He came to the style more or less by instinct, this tense, stoic vein of male Americanism defined by multiple generations of movie and TV actors, which conveniently furnishes him a way of being without having to think about it too much."
In Fountain's portrayal we are allowed pathos, insights from the vivid, intense reality of a smart young guy from Nowheresville whose experiences are so far from the Spectacle, so much required by the Spectacle at the same time, that when he finds something threatening, promising to be real and genuine, it arrives with a fragile yet vigorous hope that we want to
hold onto, as does Billy. It turns out that the Bravos, despite the firefight heroism, the long tour of duty, the acclaim, are meant to go back to Iraq. Everybody knows it's unfair, wrong - and who even knows what "we" (we?) are fighting for? - but it seems everybody wants them to go back anyway, can't or won't stop it, which is a perfect puzzle for the war generally.
This problem demands a very big moral, political decision from Billy and for Fountain (arguably more difficult, in its ambiguity, than reconciling that famous "some catch, that Catch-22" for Yossarian, and is beautifully considered in a totally wonderful relationship with his sister, one of those non-asshole genuine civilians for whom more is at stake, much more, than being only a spectator, enabler or exploiter. Her care for her brother is juxtaposed against our collective abuse or neglect, and Billy's observations about the rest of us, lame civic spectators and/or football fans. Oh, and there's a romantic love story too, or something like it, affecting in its desperate challenge to the hegemony of meaninglessness and death by way of, yes, sex.
Billy Lynn is one of the best novels I have read lately. And I've just ordered a copy of Fountain's short story collection cuz I can't get enough of his sentences. Don't miss my upcoming Bibliocracy Radio show with author Ben Fountain, airing on a Wednesday night in late September or early October.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain, Ecco, 320 pps., $ 29.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.