Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I picked this up as part of reading a list I found online of something like "Best Books of the 21st Century so far." I'd read about a third of the list already, liked those books. Quite frankly, I can't pass up lists. I love checking things off. This particular list has not let me down, and this book was a more than worthy addition to it. It's not as absurd as Catch-22, which it has been compared to, but it's damned good. (See blurb at the top of the cover.)

It's one of those connections publishers love to make, hoping to strike gold. But other than the obvious subject (the ridiculousness of war), these two books have very little in common. The tone is very different, with Billy Lynn trying to fall on the side of realism. It's understated, not drawing attention to its commentary, even as that commentary builds over the length of the book. Because of that subtlety, certain scenes hit me like a ton of bricks.

In this novel, a group of American soldiers are caught on camera by a Fox News team fighting back against an insurgent force, at the cost of two lives and one soldier permanently injured. They have become celebrities, lauded as heroes, and brought back for a "Victory Tour." Of course, you can't let people think heroism actually gets a rewarded, so after they've waved at the cameras enough, back to Iraq they're going, and they know it.

The novel takes place primarily at the last event on the tour, after they've been buffeted by journalists and civilians for weeks. It's at a Dallas Cowboys game, where they're to be part of the half-time show, the spectacle of war merging with the spectacle of sport.

Billy Lynn is the 19 year old soldier who acts as our window into this morass. He joined the military to avoid jail after he messed up the car of the guy who dumped his sister. His time in Iraq, and in particular, his contact with a couple of soldiers, have helped him realize there might be more to life, but really, how do you get to it? It's a job, and when it's done, if you're lucky, you'll go home to your working-class family and try to find a working-class job of your own.

People only want to call you a hero if it gives them no responsibilities. So Billy mingles with rich people at the Cowboys station, flirting with a cheerleader, listening to speech after speech, and people's well-meaning attempts to claim his experiences as a deeply personal experience for themselves. Fountain does a really interesting job of conveying how words become just noise by arranging them deliberately on the page, with certain words having completely lost meaning, Billy's heard them so many time. (It took me a moment to figure out "nina levin" but then I got it.)

This is not a polemic. Billy's sergeant is definitely cynical about the war, and the prospective movie deal a producer is trying to put together for them, and Billy is absorbing some of that, but it doesn't come out as a diatribe. It's very subtle, a mocking of all the people around them who just do not fucking get it, but are so confident that they do.

What is the military for, if not to provide vicarious excitement? The well-meaningness of the people Billy talks to comes through, and yet so does the utter cluelessness. And of course they're all shocked that these heroes are going to be going back to Iraq, but not enough to do anything. Or to offer them a job when they return to the States. They're good to be seen with at half-time, but not the sort of people you'd want around on a daily basis.

There is one scene in the equipment room, where the equipment manager lists, for perhaps a page and a half or more, all the equipment that is needed for the Dallas Cowboys, how much, and when. The parallel is never deliberately made, but it hits like a ton of bricks, the money being poured into this, when they're getting paid shit to go and get killed, to come back to not much more. It was a punch in the gut and all the more powerful for never deliberately making the point.

This is really excellent, subtle and nuanced. It's not necessarily anti-war per se, but certainly mocking the attitudes of Americans who will never get closer to Iraq than Fox News.

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