Cowboys and veterans

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 307 pages

Watching an American football game in 2004, Ben Fountain noticed a group of soldiers playing a bit part in an over-the-top halftime show by girl group Destiny’s Child. From that momentary blip of absurdity, Fountain has fashioned a novel that speaks, with great comedy and perhaps greater pathos, to the much larger absurdity of the Iraq war. His is not a war novel but a novel about the war’s absence from American life. Barring a few flashbacks, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set entirely in a Texas football stadium, where a group of Iraq veterans are being feted as America’s Heroes. Fountain’s point – how unreal the war was for everyone except those who fought it – is made by inserting us into the head of a fictional soldier at sea in a real homeland.

“Bravo Squad”, as Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, has been mistakenly abbreviated by the media, has returned to the US for a two-week “Victory Tour” after an insurgent-obliterating firefight, recorded and endlessly replayed by Fox News. The novel is set during the tour’s last stop, a Dallas Cowboys game where the men of Bravo are expected to play a mysterious role during the halftime show, then two days later return to Iraq, their courage no safeguard against the military’s carnal maw. At the game they will be celebrated and humiliated in equal parts, shepherded from one station of excess – buffets and clubs, bars and parties – to another, but also to seats in the blistering cold weather, against which they alone seem unarmoured.

Fountain’s dialogue and metaphors are often hilarious, and he is sharply observant as well. In the era of the all-volunteer army, the eyes of civilians meeting Bravo “skitz and quiver with the force of the moment,” he writes, “because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.” Elsewhere he notes: “It’s never the young or middle-aged men who stop to speak but always the older guys, the silverbacks secure in the fact that they’re past their fighting prime.”

The action unfurls exclusively in the head of Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old from a small Texas town who was at the centre of the firefight and can’t shake the memory of a dying friend. Nor can he shake his fear of returning to Iraq, which has become less about a collective struggle against an enemy than about each individual soldier’s evasive manoeuvres against death. Even the novel’s satiric subplot – Hollywood’s quickly waning interest in making a movie about Bravo – resonates most when it intersects with this mortal dread: the soldiers are desperate to cash in now because later they may be dead.

The novel’s poignancy lies partly in Billy coming to cherish, almost with surprise, the value of his own life, even as the day’s events deflate his self-worth. His heroism has brought him into unprecedented proximity with wealth and power, embodied by the Cowboys’ owners, players and Very Important Patrons. Even as these encounters open his sense of possibility, they also whittle him down, never more so than when he and the other soldiers find themselves as props at halftime – with post-traumatic-stress-disorder-inducing fireworks thundering overhead – for Beyoncé’s booty-shaking. “All the freak-out flavors of an ambush situation without any of the compensating murderous release,” as Fountain puts it.

Fountain’s short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (2006) sketched, with a wry, gentle eye, Americans befuddled by encounters with the foreign. Billy is befuddled too, but by his own countrymen, who have been made strange, even freakish to him by his time in Iraq.

In many ways the novel’s putative action – a spark of hot romance with a cheerleader; the question of whether Billy will duck out of returning to the war – is merely a pretext for the exploration of this estrangement: for the question of whether fighting the war makes you “the enemy of all that sent you to the war”.

Perhaps as a result, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk occasionally feels too much like the repetitive slog Billy himself is enduring. Fountain’s vivid, fluid prose mostly overcomes this inertia although his adroit metaphors and similes are sometimes piled as thickly as one of the Cowboys’ refulgent buffets. The novel works best when its spot-on observations seem to, if not emanate from Billy Lynn’s brain, at least comport with his thinking, less well when it feels like a lecture from Fountain, whose resonant digs about Americans’ consumerism and childlike complacency and the wrongness and futility of the Iraq war can seem a cheap satisfaction. Americans can be, quite literally, a fat target.

Fountain is a writer interested in moral quandaries, and the complicated one lurking beneath this novel’s surface is where, exactly, a reader should sit in relation to it. By hewing so closely to Billy’s point of view, Fountain encourages a reader to share it. Yet Fountain seems too smart not to know that, rather than the young soldiers putting their young lives on the line, it is his Texan buffoons that the rest of us most closely resemble.

Amy Waldman is author of ‘The Submission’ (Windmill)

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