‘You Watch the Jumbotron’

Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Canongate, 307pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780857864383

reviewed by Matt Lewis

In the press for Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, much has been made of Ben Fountain's biography – especially of the fact that it took him over twenty years of writing full-time to get his first novel into print. Many of these column inches have been catalysed by Malcolm Gladwell’s hyperbolic New Yorker profile, in which he likened Fountain’s late blooming, carefully honed ‘genius’ to that of the great Paul Cézanne. Biographical detail can often be irrelevant, but in the case of this fifty-four year old North Carolinian, one gets the impression that his first novel is very much the product of his writerly experiences thus far. After his reams of drafts, abandoned projects and false starts, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a lean, direct and muscular 307 pages, and is almost certainly the first great novel about the Iraq war.

The novel dramatises nineteen-year-old Texan soldier Billy Lynn’s final day in the US before he sees out the remaining eleven months of his extended tour in Iraq. Billy is a member of Bravo Squad, a military company on a propaganda-ish ‘victory tour’ of American swing states, brought back, in part, to drum up support for the war on the home front. Aside from one chapter-length flashback and a smattering of other memories and recollections, all of the novel’s action takes place in and around the Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving in an unspecified year, some time before 2008. The ‘Bravos’ are guests of honour at the American football match, and are accompanied by an interested Hollywood film producer, Albert, throughout.

As the day and the game progress Billy and the Bravos are treated regally and introduced to the Texan upper crust. The stadium itself represents a microcosm of an American city and of US society in general, housing everyone from the blue-collar to the billionaire. This clever detail allows the author to engineer encounters with a variety of different people, ranging from waiters and staff to the Cowboys players themselves and the colourful team owner, Norm Oglesby. The one thing that unites them is their reverence towards Bravo Squad. Billy attributes this amenability to the idea that they:

‘all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.’

The feeling extends across the entire class spectrum: the narrator tells the reader that ‘Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives.’ What they most enjoy about contact with Billy’s Bravos is that:

‘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, flogged and flacked on talk Radio.’

The simple presence of the soldiers is enough to make the war feel real to those safe at home. The Bravos are not only fulfilling their political function in garnering support for the invasion, but also satisfying this ‘deepest need’ that the everyday American feels. Whilst Fountain seems determined to resist partisanship as much as he can, occasionally his mask slips and we see the anti-war liberal lurking behind. As one character says of the Bravo story: ‘“how could you make a movie about this war and not be political?”

The story is told in the present tense, and in what Fountain has described as a ‘close third-person.’ His use of free indirect discourse allows the readers to be privy to Billy’s most private feelings and musings. As expected, many of these concern the war, his fallen comrades, and the cheerleaders; but fundamental existential questions are never far from his mind either. Fountain brilliantly captures the expletive-laden repartee of the military and proves to have a great ear for the idiosyncrasies of American vernacular, too. Latino, African-American and other dialects are handled with precision. As the crowds of well-wishers mob Billy, words – often phonetically spelt – pepper the blank page: ‘currj’, ‘nina leven’, ‘God’, ‘wore on terrRr’. The author, like so many American writers of his generation before him, proves to be especially adept with simile and colourful characterisation. The description of a family member’s smile as ‘forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town’ or of a restaurant manager as having ‘the unctuous patter of an undertaker murmuring pickup lines in a bar’ are personal highlights.

Focalising the action from Billy's perspective, with his wide-eyed wonder and experience beyond his years, is another intelligent decision by the author. It allows him to muse not just on the war on terror, but also on the grander themes of national identity and American social issues. Being that they are in the South, religion is never far away (‘America loves to pray, God knows. America prays and prays and prays, it is the land of unchained prayer, and all this ceremonial praying is weighing hard on Billy’). Class, money, capitalism, consumerism, guns, and, of course, American football, also get the epigrammatic treatment – all from a surprisingly liberal angle. And it is here that some of the difficulties in this novel start to rear their heads. Though for the most part the characters are believable and in-line with the ‘straight realism’ that Ben Fountain has said he was attempting in this book, sometimes Billy and other characters strain against the New Journalistic bridle.

Billy’s commanding officer, Sergeant David Dime, is referred to by other company sergeants as ‘“Fuckin’ Liberal”’ – something unusual, but not beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed, Dime’s fatherly influence on Billy may well account for some of the teen’s more leftist sympathies. What I refuse to believe is that a nineteen year old grunt, no matter how smart or battle-hardened he may be – or even how much Vonnegut, Kerouac or Thompson he has read – would be able to formulate thoughts like:

‘Billy suspects his fellow Americans 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.’

Or even:

‘Billy has these visions sometimes, these brief sightlines into America as a nightmare of superabundance, but Army life in general and the war in particular have rendered him acutely sensitive to quantity.’

Yet these authorial tonal slippages are minor complaints in an otherwise excellent novel; these abnormal occurrences are the very stuff that fiction is made from. Without these interesting facts or Billy’s distinctive tone, the novel would be half of what it in fact is.

Despite Karl Marlantes’s claim that the book is ‘The Catch-22 of the Iraq War’, being embossed onto the dust jacket, the novel, with its largely believable characters and generally even-handed approach, never really descends into satire. Fountain himself has blamed the ‘nature of the material’ for the conception of his work as satire, criticising the form for being ‘too sure of itself’. That said, echoes of Yossarian and co. crop up in the text, not least in Billy’s sister telling him that ‘only a nut would want to go back. We’ll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you’; or in the description of a ‘paradox so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify.’

The novel is especially good at dramatizing the influence of the media on experience. As is pointed out early on, ‘There is no such thing as Bravo squad … the Fox embed christened them Bravo Squad and thus they were presented to the world’, meaning that the public are being given, from the off, something that is essentially false or insincere. TV and movies themselves have shaped Billy’s own reality, ‘conveniently [furnishing] him a way of being without having to think about it too much.’ It is no surprise that this influence has spread to American football, where it is ‘not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron … And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads.’ This American divorcement from reality, for Fountain, appears to be inextricably linked to their participation in the war and the cause of many of the problems of daily life. Fountain has spoken of research and of his ‘right to take on a book like this,’ but whether or not the author is fully aware of the fact that his Realist novel is also – however obliquely – adding to the mass of media-generated US-military myth is another question entirely.
Matt Lewis is a freelance writer based in London. He writes and reviews fiction and non-fiction.