There’s a moment early on in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a masterful gut-punch of a debut novel by Ben Fountain, when readers will discern a clear literary echo. A movie producer is describing to a group of American soldiers the way Hollywood operates: Studio executives refuse to commit to a project until a bankable, A-list star is committed. But of course, the producer explains, no big movie star is willing to commit until a major studio does so first.
The soldiers “emit an appreciative ahhhhh. The paradox is so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify.”
That’s some catch, as Yossarian might say, after letting out a respectful whistle. The brief exchange between naive grunts and a grizzled veteran of Tinseltown is an obvious homage to Joseph Heller. But it’s also a bold announcement that “Catch-22” is about to be updated for a new era.
In his immortal classic, Heller was lampooning the military’s attempt to bureaucratize the horror of World War II. In Fountain’s razor-sharp, darkly comic novel — a worthy neighbor to “Catch-22” on the bookshelf of war fiction — the focus has shifted from bureaucracy to publicity, reflecting corresponding shifts in our culture. The invisible architects of Heller’s war, the mysterious “they” who pulled all the strings, aimed to apply organizational theory to inhuman chaos, with predictably absurd results. In Fountain’s war, once it has become abundantly clear that the Iraq mission cannot be accomplished, the only hearts and minds left to be won are those of ambivalent Americans back home — and the only way to win them, naturally, is through pageantry, jingoism and self-congratulation.
On Thanksgiving Day of an unspecified but recent year, the surviving members of Bravo Squad — whose battlefield bravery has been replayed endlessly on Fox News — are at Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, as special guests of the team’s owner. They are vaguely aware that they are to take part in the high-octane halftime performance, along with the scheduled entertainment: Destiny’s Child, the R&B act led by Beyonce. They are more acutely aware that they are to be redeployed in a matter of days.
Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is filled with dread, not so much having to do with returning to Iraq (though he’s not particularly looking forward to it) as with going on national TV in front of tens of millions of viewers and representing America’s fighting forces under such strangely, and even obscenely, contrived circumstances. Then again, their elaborately orchestrated, cross-country publicity tour has been an education in a very different kind of self-sacrifice for Billy and his fellow soldiers. Everywhere they go, they meet awestruck Americans who can’t help but couch their sincere gratitude to Bravo Squad in the rhetoric of predigested, unearned bellicosity, which Fountain relays as a run-on stream of patriotic cliches.
Billy obliges every last fan with his courteous humility and resolute bearing. “In a way it’s so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they’re happy, they love him, everybody gets along,” Fountain writes of the starring role Billy has assumed in the national psychodrama. “Sometimes he has to remind himself there’s no dishonor in it. He hasn’t told any lies, he doesn’t exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied.”
Billy’s beloved sergeant, known to his men as “Shroom” for his unorthodox spirituality and esoteric tastes in pop culture, died during the attack that made Billy and his fellow soldiers celebrities, and there’s something about the dissonance between his deeply felt grief and the Bravos’ joyous reception that rubs him the wrong way. As they’re being shuttled from one staged event to another, Billy is subjected to the gauche iconography of the country he’s been fighting for: draft-dodging, platitude-mouthing millionaires and their trophy wives, holding court in owners’ skyboxes; a scantily clad Beyonce entertaining football fans with a ridiculous military-themed halftime show; the surreal presence of pom-pom-shaking Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders at a news conference in which Billy and the other Bravos are asked to describe the hell of war.
He “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,” writes Fountain, neatly summarizing the nature of civilian complicity in our latest Iraqi adventure. As Billy endures the afternoon’s indignities, he takes small comfort in the prospect of a cash payout from a movie deal that may or may not materialize, and larger comfort from the affections of one of those Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders: a tanned, busty goddess who has given the virginal teenager a good reason to want to come back alive from his tour of duty.
There’s hardly a false note, or even a slightly off-pitch one, in Fountain’s sympathetic, damning and structurally ambitious novel. (The whole story, with the exception of a flashback or two, takes place during the course of a single afternoon.) Billy and the other Bravos are, for the most part, uneducated, but they possess a rare intelligence that allows them to see things as they really are, which is not exactly the way the pro-war meme generators want Americans to see them.
By the novel’s end, we’re forced to reassess what it means to “support the troops.” Does it simply mean letting them know they’re in our prayers as we send them back into battle and go about our business? Does it mean turning them into gaudy celebrities? Or could there perhaps be a more honorable and appropriately humble way to commemorate their service? “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” asks us to consider the uncomfortable possibility that we don’t really know the answer anymore.
Turrentine, a frequent Book World reviewer, is an editor at OnEarth magazine.