Saturday, March 30, 2013
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier touring the United States with the other seven surviving members of his squad. They became national heroes when Fox News video of a firefight in which they battled fiercely against insurgents went viral. The U.S. government is using them to create positive propaganda for the Iraq war--a fact they are quite aware of but hoping to turn to their advantage by having a movie made of their story.
The book takes place over the course of one day, the last day of their whirlwind tour before they return to Iraq. They are spending the day attending a Dallas Cowboys game--and what a surreal day it is. Fueled with a large quantity of alcohol, the members of the squad meet numerous wealthy Texans--including the owner of the Cowboys--who fawn over them while simultaneously condescending to them. Billy and his friend Mango also get high with a stadium worker, Billy has a romantic encounter with a cheerleader named Faison, they are trotted out as part of an over-the-top halftime show featuring Destiny's Child, they fight with roadies tearing down the stage, and they learn that they aren't going to get rich from any movie deal. While all of this is happening, Billy's sister is pressuring him via text to desert--she has even arranged for a car to pick him up at the game and spirit him away to a "safe" farm.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been praised as one of the best books about the Iraq War, but I don't really see it as a book about the war so much as about soldiers and the craziness of American culture. Most of the book is narrated in an almost stream-of-consciousness way (albeit in the third person), providing a window into the mind of a 19-year-old trained to be a soldier--and, while Billy is in many ways a sympathetic character, his mind is still a somewhat frightening place when you consider that America's military is made up of many similar young men--well-intentioned, good-hearted, but not as well-educated or well-balanced as you might hope. Even more frightening, however, is the celebrity-crazed, materialistic society that turns them into cardboard cutouts.
I can't say I really enjoyed this book, but I did appreciate it. The squad's language is raw, which is appropriate but may be off-putting to some readers. What bothered me more was that Fountain occasionally lost Billy's voice--would Billy really be observing the weather and thinking, "The transect of sky through the open dome is the color and texture of rumbled pewter, an ominous boil of bruised speaks and ditchwater grays that foretells all kinds of weather-related misery"?
For all that work [plastic surgery] the sum effect is neither good nor bad, just expensive, and Billy will later reflect that you could get pretty much the same result by plastering your face with thousand dollar bills.
Okay, so maybe they aren't the greatest generation by anyone's standard, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.
What might be merely embarrassing in real life is made obscene and hostile by TV