Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
320 pages / $14.99 buy from Amazon
1. Fall, 2002. I’m in New Castle, Delaware, dining alone — at Hooters. I hadn’t gone to eat chicken wings at an ironic remove; I was just lonely. I hadn’t finished college, and I was working at a tiny weekly newspaper in a tiny state where I knew no one. It must have been a Saturday; there was a college football game on. I was reading The Atlantic and only intermittently glancing up at the televisions. I’m not sure when I noticed the four fatigue-clad soldiers at a table behind me, nor do I know where my sudden patriotic impulse came from, but I asked my waitress to get them a pitcher of whatever they were drinking, put it on my tab, and not to tell them why they were getting it.
2. The charms of four fit, uniformed men turned out to be more persuasive than those of an overweight sportswriter with wing sauce in his whiskers. Before I was able to pay my check and get the hell out of Hooters, the waitress had fingered me to the table of soldiers. The sergeant (I have no idea if he was a sergeant; he could have been a major corporal or lieutentant admiral for all I know) was tapping me on the shoulder: “Sir? Did you buy this?” He was holding the pitcher of beer. I admitted that I had, and he offered a hearty thanks and a firm handshake, then insisted that I come over to greet the other men.
3. Here’s what I was thinking on the short walk to the soldiers’ table: “Don’t say ‘Thank you for your service.’ Don’t say ‘Thank you for your service.’ Don’t say ‘Thank you for your service.’”
4. You’ve already guessed what I said.
5. In my truck, George Costanza “jerk-store” style, I imagined the speech I’d have given otherwise: “I don’t know what I think about us going to Iraq, but I hope you guys stay safe. … I don’t agree with the war, but I support you guys.”
6. This incident — the peak of my involvement in more than 10 years of American wars; my single “support the troops” moment — has been back in my head ever since I finished Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain’s National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle winner. The novel and the memory fire many of the same synapses, engage the same particularly American themes: sex, death, football, and their various intersections.
7. A few months after 9/11, a friend from my rural Missouri high school and I were on the phone together, trying like everyone else to make sense of things. We were on the same page up until he said “I’m sure you were like me. Ready to sign up and go over there.” I mumbled something in agreement, but this had not occurred to me.
8. Neither of us did, of course. Go over there, I mean. We each had options. I was failing out of college, but I had options.
9. Billy Lynn has no options. We meet the 19-year-old PFC on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. He’s in the back of a limo, taking the edge off after a group of patriotic well-wishers having just “trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.”
10. This young boy from central Texas and his squadmates in Bravo Company are about to conclude a two-week, whirlwind “victory tour” with a cameo appearance in the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears. Bravo Company (which, it turns out, is not the group’s proper military designation but has been simplified for media digestibility).
11. The setup is contrived yet believable, not unlike the Bush administration’s WMD cover story. It wasn’t true that Saddam had those weapons, but it could have been true. It isn’t true that Bravo Company was feted on the field at Texas Stadium in 2004 and used as dance props by Destiny’s Child, but Fountain convinces us that it could have been true.
12. The easy Ulysses comparisons have all been made, and they’re not wrong. The book takes place over the course of a single day, its fictional events and characters occur and exist in a real place on a specific historical date. It deals with the politics of the time. There’s sex and wordplay.
13. “terrRist … freedom … evil … nina leven … nina leven … nina leven … soooh-preeeeme sacrifice … dih-mock-cruh-see …” Not words but phonemes floating down the page. Every few chapters the reader gets the business end of this word salad of cliché and affirmation: both hopelessly inadequate and the best we can do.
14. The soldiers of Bravo Company know words are worthless. At one point, Billy suspects his buddy is thinking about the war and is “tempted to raise the subject, but really, what can you say short of everything?”
15. But the words in this book! On every other page, Fountain pegs a perfect description. Like when Lynn’s buddy starts to get tipsy. “Mango’s English is getting looser, leaning toward the street. Not that he’s slurring, just taking the corners wide.” Or when Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys play, rises “from the sweep of suburban prairie like an engorged and wart-spattered three-quarter moon.” Or something as simple as “the fudgy give of plywood underfoot.”
16. Or the producer’s shoes. When we meet Albert Ratner — the movie producer who’s attached himself to Bravo Company and is trying to help the soldiers sell their “life rights” (loaded term!) to a movie studio — he’s wearing “sleek, dainty loafers that appear to be made of pliable chocolate bars.” We don’t have to be told that Ratner is dangling the shoe from his toe to somehow know he’s doing it.
17. Albert Ratner is Albert Brooks, at least in my mind’s-eye. More than the same first name, Ratner has much in common with the typical Brooksian character: a sympathetic mensch hidden underneath a carapace of Hollywood cynicism. “Carl, what can I say?” he asks some studio honcho early on. “It’s a war picture—Not everybody gets out alive.”
18. Albert is a kind of proxy for Fountain’s own project. He’s a storyteller who wants to convey Bravo’s experience, but also knows — the way storytellers do — that corners will be cut and compromises made. “People like me who’ve never been in combat, thank God, no way we can know what you guys went through,” Albert tells the soldiers. “and I think that’s why we’re getting push-back from the studios.” This serves as an oblique commentary on the whole book. Like Albert, Fountain is someone who’s never been to combat. So am I. So are you, probably.
19. When it comes, the inevitable compromise comes not at the expense of Bravo Company’s story, but their bank accounts. By the end of the book, Albert seems to have thrown in with the novel’s villain, a Jerry Jones-stand-in named Norman Oglesby. As the fictitious owner of the Cowboys and a billionaire with too much time on his hands, Oglesby wants the producer to help him get into the movie business. He’s looking to make a splash with the story of the heroes of Bravo Company. “I want a movie that’s going to rank right up there with the best American films of all time,” he says.
20. To do that, Oglesby is willing to screw over the heroes he’s been heralding in front of the press. Early in the book, Albert had demanded a hundred thousand for each soldier’s life story, and now Oglesby offers them $5,500. And so emerges another theme of contemporary American life: the poverty-level schlubs whose lives are literally on the line get shortchanged, and the billionaire gets a price break.
21. Big-time football, billionaires, Beyonce. I’m beginning to worry that, in summary, this book sounds like bogus pastiche, a cartoon version of The Way We Live Now via Inside Edition. And I haven’t even gotten to the hottest dry-humping scene in contemporary fiction. A heroic Army private’s grinding against a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader to climax (hers, not his) doesn’t pass the laugh test for a letter to the Penthouse Forum. But Fountain not only makes it work, he convinces us that the two have an emotional connection. The book is a masterwork of empathy.
22. In their line of work, professional football players inflict more physical damage on their fellow human beings than almost any other professional category. The American combat soldier has the NFL player beat by a couple orders of magnitude. When the boys of Bravo Company visit the Cowboys’ locker room before the game, the football players want to know what it feels like to “cap somebody” and what the various calibers of machine gun will do to a human body. The ‘roided-up millionaires and their morbid fascination with the gore-inducing properties of military ordnance is sickening — to the soldiers, and the reader — and is a not-too-subtle commentary on this country’s avid gun culture.
23. The soldiers have as much disdain for the regular folk who pay lip service to their heroism as they do for the billionaire trying to screw them over and the gun-nut football stars: “Why we fight, yo who is this we?” This question — “who is this we?” — is the animating one for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
24. Who is this we? We weren’t sure we should even be going to war. And then again, we did not go. We bought a pitcher of beer as though it were one of those Catholic indulgences that Luther railed against: a piece of paper absolving us of responsibility.
25. The inadequacy of a pitcher of beer. The inadequacy of that gesture against the fact that I still remember it. The inadequacy of protest. The inadequacy of gratitude. The inadequacy of a novel — of any book, even one this good — to convey the experience of the returning soldier. Billy Lynn’s success lies in its evocation of this fact: all the gestures are inadequate, even and including the gesture of the book itself.
Sebastian Stockman teaches in the First Year Writing Program at Emerson College. His work has appeared on or in TheAtlantic.com, The Kansas City Star, The Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @substockman.