MAY 8, 2012
WHERE IS THE RED-HOT center of Red-State America? Geographically, it probably sits in some lonely Kansas cornfield. Politically, you would have to place it in those gaseous two inches between Rush Limbaugh’s mouth and his microphone. But culturally, Red-State America’s belly button, the navel into which God-fearing, flag-waving conservatives gaze when they most want to like what they see, is almost certainly the 50 yard line at Texas Stadium during the half-time show of the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.
All of which explains why Ben Fountain has built Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, his antic satire of America in the Dubya Years, around a single Cowboys vs. Bears football game. In the novel, an eight-man squad of infantry soldiers, made famous by a Fox News video of a heroic gun battle in Iraq, wind up on a nationwide publicity tour, appearing as guests of honor during the half-time show of the Thanksgiving Classic in Dallas.
If this seems a rather thin premise for a 320-page novel, rest assured that Fountain has heard the sound of ten-thousand readers flipping ahead to find the, you know, plot, and has juiced up the slower bits with high-octane prose and rafts of larger-than-life characters. While the Iraq veterans watch the game, they crack wise; smoke pot with the kitchen help; lust after Beyoncé, who stars in the half-time show; hobnob with right-leaning rich Texans and their surgically enhanced wives; have not one, but two pitched battles with a gang of roadies armed with wrenches, pipes, and crowbars; all while trying to negotiate a Hollywood movie deal to cash in on their televised heroics. And if that isn’t enough, the title character, Specialist Billy Lynn, brings a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader to the point of shuddering orgasm with little more than some earnest conversation and a few passionate kisses.
By all rights, this spectacle-heavy, elongated short story shouldn’t really work as a novel, and for long stretches it doesn’t, but Fountain is so gifted a storyteller, and his observations of that period’s vulgarity are so deadly accurate, that one forgives the book its longueurs. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not the book our grandchildren will be reading 50 years from now to find out what life was like in this country during the Iraq War, but it is entertaining enough to pass the time until such a book comes along.
Fountain’s debut, the 2006 story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, won a PEN/Hemingway Award, but many readers may have first heard of him from a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker essay two years later, which posited Fountain as poster boy for late-blooming geniuses. The essay, written with that Gladwellian mix of heartwarming storytelling and great, swocking generalizations, compared Fountain to Paul Cézanne, arguing that both men came late to their genius “not as a result of some defect of character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes time to come to fruition.”
This may be true, but it is unfortunate that Fountain, for all his gifts, is such a slow worker. Billy Lynn is very much the work of a writer still plodding through the formal complications of transitioning from the short story to the novel. Fountain is 53. Two or three books from now, he may be capable of turning out a work of lasting genius, but at this rate he’ll be into his seventies when he does.
The book’s lone flashback chapter, set at home with Billy’s dysfunctional family in the Texas oil patch, a few days before the Cowboys game, shows just how good a novelist Fountain can be. Away from the game’s narrative constrictions and the members of his squad, Billy is finally set into a context that tests his inner reserves. Billy’s father, Ray, a former Limbaugh-like local talk-radio host, has been relegated to a wheelchair by a stroke, leaving the Lynn women — Billy’s mother and his sisters — in charge of the house and, by extension, of Billy’s moral development. Amid frequent trips upstairs to masturbate in the familiar comfort of his childhood bedroom, Billy is whipped between the twin poles of his mother’s quiet pride in him as a soldier and his younger sister Kathryn’s increasingly angry insistence that he go AWOL.
Kathryn’s frustration signals the question of the book — are young American soldiers like Billy Lynn wasting their bravery on a pointless and stupid war? — but nowhere else is Billy forced to look squarely at the alternative to following orders. In one marvelous scene with Kathryn, to whom poor, horny Billy feels a most un-sibling-like attraction, the pair circle around the great moral questions the book wants to pose: To whom does a soldier owe his greatest obligation, his country or his family? Is a soldier obligated to fight a war he knows is failing and, at bottom, morally corrupt?
Kathryn recites for him the litany of the Iraq War boosters’ pusillanimous records in the Vietnam War — “Cheney, four educational deferments, then a hardship 3-A. Limbaugh, 4-F thanks to a cyst on his ass. Pat Buchanan, that lifetime jogger, bad knee …” — then argues that Billy should refuse to return to Iraq and take his Silver Star for Valor along with him. But Kathryn’s motives are personal, not political. “What about us, Billy, think about that,” she tells him. “With everything this family’s been through, what do you think it’ll do to us if something happens to you.”
The rest of the novel endeavors mightily to make the political personal, but for the most part, it functions as an extended narrative essay laying out the liberal critique of Bush Era patriotic fervor. Billy and the members of Bravo Squad are fun to be around, but likeable as he is, Billy is too often simply a roving eyeball observing the perilously thin veneer that conceals the corporate-driven cynicism behind the American war effort. Over and over, Billy sees people and things up close — politicians, celebrities, Cowboys players, Texas Stadium itself — that he has before only viewed through the TV lens, and finds the reality frighteningly shoddy. “Give bigness all its due, sure,” Billy thinks as he gets his first look at Texas Stadium, “but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job. The roof is a homely quilting of mismatched tiles. There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-sludged masses of beached whaleness.”
Just in case you missed Texas-Stadium-as-symbol-for-post-millennial-America, Fountain drives the point home half a page later when he has Billy muse on “his contempt for the usual public shock and outrage when a particular situation goes to hell”:
The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.
Of course, Texas Stadium, and the whole bizarre mythology that surrounds the weekly, advertising-supported blood ritual that is modern professional football, is a perfect metaphor for the forces that drove this country toward a costly and unnecessary war in Iraq. Too perfect, in fact. Trapped by the aptness of his metaphor, Fountain seems forced to work that structure through to its natural end, and his characters never seem to exist as people rather than as symbolic pawns of forces beyond their ken.
In the end, as smart and funny as it is, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the literary equivalent of a particularly good Jon Stewart routine on The Daily Show. Is it a pleasure to watch? Oh, yes. Are the jokes laugh-out-loud hilarious? At times, hell, yes. But if you don’t already agree with the authorial stance, will it make you rethink your views?