For sometime now the people of my favorite bookstore ‘Three Lives’ in downtown New York have been pressing me to buy Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time walk home by Ben Fountain.
Such was their vigor I half expected to find out they were relations of the author.
After much resistance on my part I finally relented and brought a copy.
It’s an early indication of what I expect to happen in the next decade. A positive torrent of books concerning the wars, written by people who have fought in them and people who have strong opinions about them.
The same thing happened after the Vietnam war. The books and films that talked about this unfortunate episode in US history didn’t really start occurring until that war was nearly over (see Robert Stone Dog Soldiers’) or a long time over (see Tim O’Brien ‘The Things they carried’)
By those standards Ben Fountain’s novel has arrived early but like the aforementioned books it’s a classic.
Fountain, unlike O’Brien, is not an ex-soldier so his work is not born of experience but rather of human empathy and great literary skill. He chooses to look at the war through the lens of servicemen returning to the US.
Whereas Kevin Powers in ‘The Yellow Birds’ focuses more on an event in the war and it’s aftermath, Fountain spends very little time talking about combat and a lot exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of the nations response to their new found heroes.
The story involves Bravo squad who return tom America after an embedded Fox news team sees them smoke some insurgents and show the right stuff to the folks back home.
They are then taken on a whistle stop tour of the malls and stadiums of America ending their tour with a triumphal crowd at a Dallas Cowboys football game
It’s here the reader joins them as they are put on display for the great American public, from the great unwashed to the greatly moneyed
Our main protagonist on this odyssey is Billy Lynn, a likeable, virginal 19 year-old Texan, who has volunteered for the giant cluster known as Iraq after an assault on his sisters ex boyfriend and his car left service as a rather more attractive alternative to prison.
It’s through him that we encounter texting Pastor Rick, green cowboy boot wearing millionaire March Hawey and the delicious and selectively religious Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Faison. In so doing we are invited to witness the madness of America through the eyes of someone still sane.
It’s a world where Hollywood might want to buy the film rights of the squads story but only if Hilary Swank plays one of the boys, where seeing our soldier heroes marching on the field is half-time entertainment but only until Destiny’s Child arrive and start gyrating.
The slightly acid trip quality of much of the book is offset by the fact we care about Billy Lynn and are genuinely moved by his plight and people’s inability to give him what he needs. Here is a man, no a boy, who has experienced genuine loss first hand when his platoon mate Shroom dies in his arms but rather than find solace from his elders and betters he only finds wall-to-wall bullshit from a society that is no longer able to cope with the reality of life.
In the end this is the lasting impression we get from the book, that Bravo squad are the only real thing left in the world. War maybe madness but the response to it from the society that starts it is often even crazier.