Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
Ecco, $25.99, 307 pp.
Want to write the next great American novel? Then think like David Allen Coe in “The Perfect Country Song” and be sure to include a few must-have ingredients. That’s what Ben Fountain has done in his first novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, stirring a pot of love, sex, money, war, family and Hollywood into a halftime show featuring Destiny’s Child performing at a Bears-Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day in Texas stadium. It’s a far-fetched but brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, that makes Fountain a writer well worth watching.
Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and more recently James Hynes’ Next, Fountain’s story takes place in just one day––actually in just a few hours––Those few hours, however, pack a lot of punch.
They open with Fountain’s hero, Billy Lynn, (a real war hero, Silver Star and all) downing successive Jack and Cokes on the last day of his squad’s promotional Victory Tour, a cross-promotion with Fox News of the network’s TV special on their exploits in Iraq. It’s been a tough two weeks for Billy, and his day starts out even tougher when “overcaffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.”
From this exemplary launch, Fountain’s storytelling accelerates as his metaphorical and linguistic exuberance takes over in a rambunctious tumble of hyphenated adjectives, song snippets, and laugh outloud scenes of good old American consumerism and gung-ho sports fanaticism run amok.
The story of Bravo squad (technically just an eight man team within the much larger Bravo Company, but Fox wanted a hook and so Bravo became their name) is the familiar story of every other “band of brothers” in war history. They are a diverse group of 18-25 year old males tethered by training and circumstance to confront death and violence at the command of far away leaders and vague national policy.
An IED explosion kills Billy’s Zen-like buddy Shroom, and an embedded newsman captures his heroic, movie-ready leadership on video of a counterattack that wins him a medal––and the whole squad a trip home.
The “Showdown at Al-Ansakar Canal” is made to order Fox TV: the insurgents attack (“a little kamikaze band of eight or ten bursting from the reeds at a dead sprint, screaming, firing on full automatic, one last rocks-off martyr’s gallop straight to the gates of the Muslim paradise”) only to be met by Bravo’s “perfect storm of massing fire…how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests.”
The Pentagon needs something to boost flagging support for the Iraq War and what better vehicle than a tour of these soldier-sharp, TV-sanctioned heroes across the country. The tour culminates in a day in the heart of Bush country at Texas Stadium, just a stone’s throw from W’s new Dallas library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
Billy and his squad find themselves pawns in a show as confusing to them as the war in Iraq. But they do what they are told. They stand and march as ordered, smile and shake hands with the Cowboys owner’s rich friends, and grab whatever free booze they can. The carrot leading them on is a potentially lucrative movie deal, a reception with the Cowboys cheerleaders, and a backstage, up-close look at Beyoncé’s remarkable booty.
It’s the cheerleaders who really motivate Billy. “Such breasts, oh Lord, such volumes of majestically fulsome boob overflowing the famous tail-knotted half shirt, yes, at any moment an avalanche could burst forth and bury them all, only a few scant inches of besieged cloth save Bravo from utter annihilation.” All it takes is a brief exchange of smiles with a showbiz girl name Faison to make Billy believe she could be his next girl friend.
Meet The Press
But first the Bravo team has to meet the press. After two weeks of PR work, Billy, a Texan himself from small town Stovall, knows how to take in stride the local newshounds who really don’t get it. “Just by standing there,” he thinks, they manage to be an “incredibly annoying, a middle-aged bunch of mostly big-assed white guys dressed in boring-as-hell business casual, such a sad-fuck sampling of civilian bio-matter that for a moment Billy is actually glad for the war, hell yes, so much better to be out there shooting guns and blowing shit up than shuffling around scenery on a bad sitcom. God knows the war sucks, but he sees no great appeal in these tepid peacetime lives.”
Compared to the private reception with owner Norman Oglesby, the reporters are easy. Oglesby’s fawning friends–– who call him “The Normster” or Nahm––drive the Bravo squad straight to the booze table.
They hate the man’s guts even as they’re forced to admit his genius for turning serious bucks. It’s an opinion even his friends seem to share. “They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living—gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren’t quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style of, say, the people in a Viagra advertisement.”
The tipsy Billy smiles––Bravo has his back––and watches the Hollywood producer hardball Norm’s friends into delivering some serious Texas money for the movie.
All this takes place before Billy is hustled out to take his mark on the field for the halftime show. The weather sucks. “It’s raining, sort of, the air pilled with a dangling, brokedick mizzle into which umbrellas are constantly being raised and lowered, up, down, up, down, like a leisurely game of whack-a-mole.” Bravo’s role is small compared to the Prairie View A&M marching band, the Army Drill Team, the cheerleaders, and finally Destiny’s Child (“the current undisputed champs of mass-market pop, Colored Girls Division”) and their choreographed dance team.
Drums pound, fireworks explode, “everything flashing all at once, electro-visual spaz-pulse and epileptic overload, retinal scarring, frontal lobes blown to caterpillar fuzz…disco strobes, hump dancing, lum rounds and flares, marching bands marking time in regal high step, and here is Billy soldiering through the vast mindfuck of it, coiled into himself and determined to deal.”
And deal he does. In a moment of self-discovery and clarity, the naïve but questioning Billy recognizes that “he wishes he was back at the war. At least there he basically knew what he was doing, he had his training for guidance and the entire goddamn country wasn’t watching to see if he’d fuck up, but this, this is all wing-and-a-prayer shit.”
The post-game Limo waits for Billy and Bravo to take them to the airport to return to Iraq. That’s where his friends are. There is nothing at home to hang around for here (other than a fantasy, happily-ever-after marriage to the perky Faison). Squad Sergeant Dime waves Bravo into their ride: “I think our work here is done. Let’s blow.”
Fountain quietly leaves his story with Billy knowing that “it’s going to be a long, lonesome eleven months in Iraq, long and lonesome being best-case scenario.”
For the rest of us, Fountain leaves us with a dazzling performance that laughingly asks us to take another look at who we are and what exactly we are asking Americans to fight for.