Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2012) – I came at this one precisely backwards. I saw the Ang Lee adaptation of this Iraq War film – really, more of a movie about surviving the Iraq War – with my roommate. We had heard it was very peculiar and a box office disaster, in part due to Lee’s decision to film at a very high frame rate. My roommate had just gotten a Blu-Ray player, or whichever technology it is, and so the painfully sharp images, which remind me of nothing so much as certain PBS productions, were right there in the living room. I didn’t even know it was based on a novel until I started asking around for good literary depictions of chaotic crowd scenes. A friend recommended this book, I found it used, here I am.
It’s good! The titular Billy Lynn is a nineteen year old private in the Army infantry. He’s there because he got in trouble back home and because he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself- his family isn’t exactly poor, but it’s not very functional. Billy’s squad was involved in a firefight in Iraq that wound up becoming a symbol of American courage (and lethality) as the Iraq war soured, won his squad and himself medals, and killed Billy’s best friend and mentor, Shroom. The Army brings the squad back to the US to be shown off at various events (especially in battleground states- this was 2004). The tour culminates at a Dallas Cowboys thanksgiving day home game, in Billy’s native Texas, where the squad is expected to meet and greet various big wheels and take part in a halftime show with Destiny’s Child.
Fountain weaves numerous threads — the squad’s efforts to get decent pay for selling their story to Hollywood, Billy’s sister (who was the origin point of the trouble that sent him overseas) desperately trying to get Billy out of going back to Iraq in two days, Billy finding unlikely love with a cheerleader, weird fights with roadies — around Billy Lynn. He skillfully keeps the threads wrapped around a central concept- the war sucks, but it also became the squad’s home. They can only really understand and be understood by each other. They’re not “boots” (to borrow a term from Marine, as opposed to Army, culture)- they don’t think the Army is great or civilian life without merits or the war good. They just are what they are — infantry grunts — and they can no more walk away from that than abandon selfhood. It changes their consciousness, not just their loyalties.
It’s not enough to say that Billy and the squad despise civilian America, like 21st century freikorps types. Pretty much all of them want to go back, when their hitch is through- they see themselves as, and are, hardened fighters, but not necessarily as a career. But there is a lot to despise in a 2004 patriotism-themed Dallas Cowboys outing- waste, ugliness, fake piety and endless fairweather patriotism. The aughts were a time when you could see America as a blind giant, monstrously strong but utterly incapable of using its strength in a sensible way, whether in the Middle East or just, maybe, giving the PTSD-suffering infantry squad some hint of what they’re expected to do during a halftime show in front of thousands and broadcast to millions. The halftime show was, presumably, the chaotic mob scene that my friend recommended I look at, and it is a fine scene, all of the endless money, noise, and sex of civilian America turned up to 11 and whirled around a group of confused teenaged soldiers.
From the cheap seats — mine, and that of Ben Fountain, who does not seem to have been in the military (he thanks people in the acknowledgment for filling him in on service life), it seems that the life of the grunt is the life of a young man, distilled. Put him into a tribe of young men, isolate him from others, and then put the group into extreme situations. There’s power there — who has gained or exercised power in this world without putting young men in isolated groups, putting arms in their hands, and directing them against those who stand in their way? — but that power gets put in the hands of others, who are generally indifferent to the grunts’ fates. Billy and his comrades try to tap into a little bit of it- to sell their story and make some money (typically, just enough money to get their families out of some lousy situation, not enough to be rich), to get laid, to slack off, to drink and gamble and live the life most young men want to lead amongst other young men. But the structures around them — that they take part in, by coercion but also by accepting default — channel most of their power to the structure’s end.
I guess if I had a criticism of this book, it’s the comparative lack of narrative thrust and, basically, stuff happening. Two fights — including one involving lethal violence — with a bunch of random roadie stagehands forces along the action, and feel wedged in. In general, though, limited agency on the parts of grunts makes a certain degree of sense. Even when offered a way out, there’s a certain extent to which Billy simply can’t take it, can’t be other than what he is. He and his sergeant can spite some money men looking to exploit their story, to finally bite back at a civilian world that has used and confused them, but that’s about it. Still- that seems reflective, of the lot of life of those who serve, and, if I dare make a comparison between (sacred) troops and (profane) civilians, of most of our lots. Fountain deserves a lot of credit for taking risks — setting the story during one day (with flashbacks), playing around with format in some places, having an important character be dead and only exist in Billy’s memory and imagination — and making this story as compelling as it is. ****’