Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
Whether intentional or not, when Francis Ford Coppola debuted Apocalypse Now in 1979 he was thrusting The Vietnam War back into the American limelight, holding it up to America's face for all to consider. While the film would eventually garner the success it so richly deserves, it was a long time in coming. In 1979, America was only four years removed from the images of the last helicopter rising from the roof of the presidential palace in Saigon... the image that signified the ambiguous end to America's most ambiguous war. In many ways, America was not yet ready to deal with the Vietnam War. In many ways, Coppola forced the issue and demanded America step up and face Colonel Kurtz, a metaphor for America's wayward foreign policy in the post-war years.
Fast forward a couple of decades and a couple of even more morally ambiguous wars and you come to Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. In much the same way as Apocalypse Now, this novel is a stark and ofttimes blistering story that may well do with the Iraq War what Coppola's film did for Vietnam.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is mainly set over a single Thanksgiving weekend in Dallas. Bravo Company is winding up a tour of the home front after having achieved a level of heroic stardom because one of their recent battles with the insurgency was caught on camera by an embedded Fox News correspondent. The footage The company has been wined and dined by the country's elite including a stop at the White House. Their final stop is a Dallas Cowboys game where they are to be paraded as heroes in front of an American television audience during a halftime show featuring Destiny's Child. Over the course of the day, the Bravos meet the tight-fisted, conservative owner of the Cowboys, Billy falls in love with one of the cheerleaders and virtually everything they know and understand will be called into question by a world they no longer understand. To the home front, the war is simply a primetime spectacle rather than the real life tragedy it actually is. At it's essence, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is, at its core, heart-breaking.
Told from the perspective of Billy Lynn, a surprisingly astute nineteen-year old soldier with a ferocious game-day hangover, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk instead parades the reader through a particular view of America circa 2004. It has been lauded as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War and with good reason. Fountain delivers a panoply of ironies and absurdities about American culture and society ranging from the tyranny of organized sports to the fallacies inherent in the notion of trickle-down economics. All observed with the full capacity wisdom that a nineteen-year old soldier from small-town Texas can muster. The fact that it is set during the ostentatious, over-the-top consumerism-fueled pomp of an NFL football game (A Dallas Cowboys game, even) provides high definition contrast necessary to see the ironies and absurdities in all their particular glory.
In one especially poignant scene the owner of the Cowboys is addressing a press conference called in order to introduce the Bravos to the Dallas media. He takes the opportunity to provide his own personal justification for the war in Iraq, rattling off a laundry list of reasons pertaining to the economic plight of the Iraqi citizens and the corruption of the Saddam Hussein government. What he and all the people at the press conference fail to realize is that he says nothing whatsoever that differs from the problems faced by most Americans.
And this is the real success of this novel. Fountain delivers his story in such a straight forward, un-ironic tone that the irony of the words are almost (but not quite) lost in their simplicity. I say not quite because Fountain's complete and total lack of subtlety allows the ironies and absurdities to be both peripheral and front-and-center at the same time. All without compromising the actual story arc. Make no mistake, the Bravos are heroes. That is the one constant in the entire narrative. The rest is so decidedly ambiguous it is difficult to maintain a moral compass setting.
With so many themes running side by side throughout the novel it is a little difficult to pin down what, exactly, it is about this novel that sets it apart from virtually everything else written on the subject of the Iraq War. Perhaps, unlike so many other war novels, the actual soldiers are incidental to the story. It is the American public with its obsession with celebrity and shopping and instant replay and meaningless buzz words like nina leven and currj and terrR that plays the central role in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Everybody supports the war and honors the heroes in theory. Everyone can spout off the necessary platitudes about sacrifice with expert media savvy. But do they mean it? America is still a land of haves and have-nots and there are systems in place to ensure that it stays that way... or so it seems to Billy. The culmination of the novel is such a succinct metaphor for the state of America today that I'm surprised it's not cliched (Maybe it is and I'm simply blind).
About halfway through this Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk it occurred to me that I was probably reading what would be regarded as a classic novel in the years to come. It has the style and grace and poignancy in writing to last generations and yet it is so deeply rooted in our own time that it would be a stellar illustration of our world circa 2004. I have no way of knowing whether what I predict will come true, but in my own mind, this is precisely the novel we should be reading ten, fifteen or fifty years from now when we attempt to understand the social, political and cultural motivations America had during it's most ambiguous war. But more importantly it is a novel in the here and now and perhaps Fountain can force the issue as it pertains to the Iraq War. Perhaps this novel will force America to examine its motivations and try to understand the war's legacy
In that respect, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is not only this generation's Catch-22, it may also be this generation's Apocalypse Now. Absolutely crucial reading.