BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK: UNFORGETTABLEFebruary 5th, 2013
There are novels that succeed because of an intriguing narrative, novels that succeed because of compelling themes, and novels that succeed because of the pure beauty of their language.
And there are novels like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which works on all three levels and probably a few others.
I recently put Billy Lynn as No. 1 on my all-time sports book list, conceding that it was a bit of a reach since it’s not really a sports book. A Dallas Cowboys game hums on in the background—and it is significant in a thematic way—but we don’t get a play-by-play and we certainly don’t give a damn who wins. We meet a few players but only briefly and before the game. I was so taken by the novel, however, that I had to put it on, and, from a sports perspective, it does speak to—among many other things—the excesses of our athletic-worshipping culture.
I read Billy Lynn right after I completed Richard Ford’s Canada, and that’s part of the reason it caught me. There are few more revered novelists in the English language than Ford—and rightly so—but I found Canada slow-going, the spare beauty of Ford’s prose notwithstanding. There is a Ford-like spareness about Fountain’s writing, too, but at the same time it’s got a gonzo element, serving as a kind of contemporary fictional counterpart to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, maybe the best book ever written about Vietnam.
I’m not pretending to have discovered either Fountain or his novel. Billy Lynn was a New York Times’ best-seller and a finalist for the National Book Award, and, even before Billy Lynn, Fountain, the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (haven’t read it yet), was outed as a genius by no less than Malcolm Gladwell, our reigning genius-identifier. Here is that link:
The Billy Lynn story line is fairly simple. (Though the implications are complex.) Ten members of Bravo Company, war heroes as the result of a brief but blisteringly bloody battle in Iraq, are back in the U.S. doing a victory lap on behalf of patriotism and the American Way. Well, 12 members really. One has been left behind in a hospital, the other in a body bag. A movie producer hoping to sell their story tags along with them. He may have Hillary Swank “attached” to the project, meaning that the gender of the lead character would have to be changed but … what the hell? It’s Hollywood, and it might be the only way to get the picture made.
The final stop on their itinerary—what few realize is that the Bravos are due to be shipped back after the Army maximizes their p.r. value—is a Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas, a territory that Fountain knows well since he lives in Big D.
(One real-life/fictional collision: I was finishing up this review on Super Bowl Sunday, watching Beyonce perform at halftime. One of the subplots in Billy Lynn is the halftime performance of Beyonce with Destiny’s Child, the soldiers hoping to steal even a glance from her.)
Billy is a Texas boy, and the Bravo who got the most attention since he led the battle charge. I don’t pretend to have done a sociological study of the modern-day soldier, but Billy seems typical—young, brave, perplexed, a reluctant soldier but a damn good one, a patriot before he’s old enough to legally buy liquor. His sister urges him to join an anti-war group in Austin; his p.r. value to them is just as high as it is to the Army. Maybe Billy will desert and maybe he won’t.
Fountain is such a skillful writer, aware of boundaries but never exceeding them, that he entangles Billy, physically and psychologically, with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, a plot device that seems obvious and banal but works.
Everything works. Here is the description of Jerry Jo … oops, excuse me, Norm Oglesby, the owner of the Cowboys, who ends up making a self-serving offer to financially back the movie about the Bravos:
“He stands an inch or two taller than Billy, a fit, stout-necked
sixty-five-year-old with peach-tinted hair and a trapezoidal
head, wide at the bottom, then narrowing through the temples
to the ironed-down plateau of hair on top. His eyes are a
ghostly-cold, fission blue, but it’s the proving ground of his
face that awes and fascinates, the famously nipped, tucked,
tweaked, jacked, exfoliated mug that for years has been
a staple of state and local news, Norm’s very public
saga of cosmetic self-improvement.”
The Bravos spend much of their time as guests—though they feel like prisoners—in Norm’s stadium suite, buttonholed by strangers.
“So there are Billy’s thoughts while he makes small talk
about the war. He tries to keep it low-key but people steer
the conversation toward drama and passion. They just assume
if you’re a Bravo you’re here to talk about the war because,
well, if Barry Bonds were here they’d talk about baseball.
Don’t you think … wouldn’t you agree … you have to admit …
Here at home the war is a problem to be solved with correct
thinking and proper resource allocation, while the drama and
passion arise from the terrorist goal of taking over the world.”
Billy played some football as a kid, but he eventually tired of the game and can’t help comparing it to what he’s doing now:
“So despite the terrific violence inherent in the game
a weird passivity seeped into your mind. All those rules,
all the maxims, all the three-hour practices where you mostly
stood around waiting your turn to be screamed at by an
assistant coach, they produce an almost pleasurable
numbness, a general dulling of perception and responsiveness.
In a way it was nice, constantly being told what to do, except
after a while it got boring as hell, and at a certain age you
started to realize that most of the coaches were actually dumb
as rocks. So fuck that. He was done with football after his
sophomore year. Except the Army is pretty much the
same thing, though the violence is, well, what it is, obviously.
By factors of thousands.”
Some saw the book as an anti-American screed—they were the exact words of one critic—but the writing is too controlled and exquisite to be labeled as a “screed,” and Billy and his buddies are too real to be anti-American. That soldiers are confused about the war, and uncertain of how they’re supposed to be act when they’re put on display, is not anti-anything. It’s not a nihilistic book at all, and, best of all, it ends so that a sequel is possible, not that Billy Lynn can’t stand alone as a marvel of modern fiction.