The drama of war
Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
One day. Twenty-four hours. That’s the main premise behind Ben Foutain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, one day during which 19-year-old Billy Lynn, a Silver Star-winning Iraq war veteran (of sorts), sees a microcosmic version of everything that is both amazing and abhorrent about the United States of America. Set in the second term of President George W. Bush, Billy is part of “Bravo squad” (not their real name), a group of soldiers deployed in Iraq during the ‘war on terror’ (not a real war, but political commentary later). Bravo squad were caught on video while engaged in a firefight in Iraq; this video has since gone viral, courtesy Fox News. The popularity of the video leads to a brief hiatus from the war, a break in which Bravo squad returns to the US as a symbol of at least one thing that has gone well in an otherwise nightmarish military engagement.
On Thanksgiving Day, the eight Bravo squad soldiers end up in a patriotic half-time show during a Dallas Cowboys (American) football game. But this is not a break, really; frankly, it’s not much of a reward. The squad members are trotted out to schmooze with über-rich football fans, to be photographed with cheer-leaders and maybe — just maybe — find themselves side by side with Destiny’s Child, the singing group that is the ‘real’ start of the half-time show. They encounter billionaires and their (trophy) wives, women who are “all blondes… displaying the taut architectonics of surgical self-improvement”; they are fêted, watered, fed and treated to fancy limousine services; and most seductive of all, they have an agent negotiating the movie rights to their story. This is temptation on par with the finest figments of Milton’s imagination.But there’s an undercurrent to all of this celebration: a sense of frenzy that brings to mind the Maenads of Greek myth, partying for the sake of partying, celebrating the death of those who stand in their way. Readers can see and hear this in the empty rhetoric surrounding the war; the members of Bravo squad are exposed to such pervasive bombast that even as he and his teammates are celebrated, all Billy can hear in the Texan drawls aimed in his direction are phonemes: “TerrRist” for terrorist; “nina leven” for nine-eleven; “currj” instead of courage, and the ever-present “Eye-rack”.
Yanked to and fro, the members of Bravo squad chug beers and “rip off” dozens of push-ups in a single go to burn through their perpetual alcohol buzz. There are 24 hours left before they return to Iraq for another 11 months of battle and internecine warfare. It is difficult to imagine the nightmare scenario of the last day before being flung back into the battlefield, but Fountain has such a gift for wordplay and metaphor that it is easy to understand how Billy feels as “tag teams of grateful citizens” hurl themselves “right down the middle” of his hangover. People’s faces are “set with the pinched look of angry vegans”, and all Billy Lynn can do is sneak beers, pine for pain-killers and watch his fellow Americans in all their terrific, patriotic, over-the-top “glory”.
But oh, how he watches them. If anything about this novel rings false, it’s the incisiveness; the dry, sardonic wit that Fountain practically pneumatically pumps through his narrator. It is almost impossible to imagine that the cutting observations made above are flowing from the person of this Billy, a juvenile offender who barely made it through high school. If reports about the horrific state of America’s public education are to be believed, we should be amazed that young Mr Lynn can walk and think at the same time, but Fountain is clearly on a mission to make a point, and so we are treated to (incongruous, but hilarious) gems of poignant, pointed, and sometimes downright hostile observation. “You have given America back its pride,” says a tycoon who owns a football team. To his credit, while receiving this adulation, all Billy can think is: “America? Really? The whole damn place?”
These are the people he is fighting for. This “pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs,” all of whom are there to see him. All “gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year”. On his occasional break from such acid observations, Fountain sculpts scenes Bravo squad are undergoing, trapped in a crucible of media frenzy and curiously American excess. But amazingly enough, he also manages to humanise his characters; they are fundamentally just regular guys, average Joes who are in over their heads, at the mercy of forces far greater than they could hope to be. Besieged by the forces of media celebrity, of jingoistic journalism, of agendas that they may not believe in, but through which they have to suffer, Bravo squad is in way over its collective head. Of course, they’re also human enough to push back, but there’s quite a bit of Scylla and Charybdis going on here, as Billy and his fellow grunts try to sail the currents of fame and fortune without getting crushed by people’s expectations and their own consciences.
Admittedly, there are moments in Fountain’s novel that are less-than-believable. Billy flirts madly with a cheerleader, something that Fountain tries to avoid criticising by acknowledging it in the narrative as a “delusion a desperate soldier would dream up”. The politics aren’t exactly subtle either: Dubya and Cheney get booted about all over the place, metaphorically anyway; supporters of the American presence in Iraq tend to be sub-human, regardless of their affiliations or kinships (see: Billy’s
father, a caricature of a bigot if ever one was written); while the members of Bravo squad are curiously liberal, open-minded and suspiciously erudite, despite their frat-boy ways and troubled background(s).
At times, these implicit critiques become a little ham-fisted, especially given the tight time constraints in which the novel is set. As Fountain makes scathing remark after scathing remark via Billy, you can’t help but feel that the narrative is a little too clever — and a little too caustic — for its own schema. One day just doesn’t seem to be enough to hold all of this.
With the exception of one long flashback that deals with Billy’s return home to his small Texas home town, Fountain spends the novel packing so much vitriol into a day’s worth of storytelling that even Dorothy Parker might shy back a la Bertie Wooster confronted by an irate aunt: “Steady on there!” This is probably about right though, given that what Fountain seems to be focusing on is the American experience: a “nightmare of superabundance”.
Bravo squad eat horrendously large meals; they binge-drink like college freshmen who have mistakenly been invited to an open bar; they meet mega-buck billionaires; they schmooze with professional athletes, “industrial-sized” people with “beer-keg heads and redwood necks”; and are lauded by the conservative Republican right.
There are many reasons why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk should devolve into a hot mess. It seems next to impossible that any sort of character or plot development of note could take place in so brief a period, but given that Ben Fountain spent about six years working on this novel, it’s only fitting that his investment in this narrative manages — somehow — to come together. n
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Foutain