Thoughts: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I don’t remember much about the film of this one, which I must have seen in 2017, but I remember enjoying it, or at least being quite enthusiastic about the idea of reading the book it was based on.

Well. It was certainly an experience.

The book is about Billy Lynn, US soldier currently doing a media tour after a particularly brutal battle in Iraq that was caught live on camera and went, for want of a better word, viral. Specifically, the book takes place during the halftime show of the American Superbowl (big Thanksgiving American football game, the halftime of which is given over to extremely expensive ad space and lavish pop concerts) in which Billy and his unit (not squad, as the book adamantly tells us) are to be trotted out in an as-yet-unspecified role during Destiny’s Child’s set.

The sort of twist of it is that despite being The Greatest American Heroes, the men are actually going to be shipped back to Iraq to serve out the rest of their time there – this trip home is, get this, also a kind of halftime in their Iraq tour.

The Superbowl halftime, in which Billy and the others are constantly caught up in larger things (the Destiny’s Child concert, the film deal that is always looking sure and then doomed according to the mystery voices on the end of Albert-the-producer’s phone which seem to be entirely random, is a pretty clear mirror to the lot of the soldier in action, being directed and ordered with no right to a view of the bigger picture, and the disconnect between the abstract Bigger Picture and the reality of the individual person in the middle of it.

This all seems pretty straightforward and unobjectionable. But. I found it hard to enjoy the book – and not because it’s about how war is bad. I found it hard almost to agree with it, because, much like the hapless soldier, I often had no idea what Fountain was trying to say, or who he was trying to say it to.

The biggest issue is timing, I think. “The Iraq War was bad” isn’t particularly controversial nowadays. And the book came out in 2012, when we still all knew the Iraq War was bad. I feel like it missed its zeitgeist. It’s entirely possible that in the future the book will come back around and be a good snapshot of a particular time, but right now we’re in the awkward middle where it just feels dated. The Destiny’s Child reference encapsulates it pretty well, I think, as something that just seems a little obsolete rather than era-invoking, though your mileage may vary.

Billy Lynn is described as “a sharp satire”, but it doesn’t feel very satirical somehow, nor does it feel particularly sharp – probably because people have been saying these same things over and over again for years. Iraq War bad. American consumerism excessive. War as spectacle. It wasn’t really anything new, and what might have been new I’ve read in clearer, better, more non-fiction settings. For example, the guy working at the stadium that Billy shares a joint with, who asks about joining the army to solve his money problems, is clearly ticking a certain box, as is Billy himself, who has ended up in the army as an alternative to prison after an assault charge. So you think okay, is he going to talk about the US army’s predatory recruiting practices? And the answer is no. And it feels like there’s something missing, because it’s something I know enough about that it feels like it should be here as more than this glancing reference.

Given that it’s supposed to be such a sharp satire, Fountain never seems quite able to fully dig out the root of his reverence for the US military and what it does. The Iraq War is bad, sure, and everything about it is a corrupt and probably illegal omnishambles, but there’s still this little seam of superiority about the military as a whole. Still that weird little sense of American exceptionalism that’s hard to put your finger on (it comes out more clearly in the afterword, which is a speech Fountain gave, so I might be retroactively applying some of this).

Every character is kind of terrible. Of course the streams of pilgrims who come to pay homage at “Bravo Squad’s” feet are a homogeneous and distasteful mass, who speak in vague word clouds of phonetically spelt buzzwords, and the rich men who pull the world’s strings from their mahogany-scented VIP boxes at the stadium are slick and patronising, but even characters we’re presumably supposed to sympathise with. The other soldiers are off getting in trouble and fighting people quite frequently given the book’s short time frame. Billy’s cheerleader girlfriend Faison, even before the final betrayal in which she innocently makes it clear that she expects Billy to go back to war and it would be disappointing to her if he didn’t, is sort of sweet and stupid and inanely religious. Maybe this is a cultural thing? but I felt like Fountain was kind of making fun of her.

The only characters who aren’t terrible are Billy Lynn himself, who gets the close-third inner monologue in which to be a fully rounded person, the sergeant who is the kind of tough love, foul-mouthed guy who will defy authority for the sake of his men etc, Shroom, who is dead and therefore was the best of them, and Billy’s sainted sister Kathryn, for whose sake he joined the army in the first place, and even she is treated as someone who Cannot Possibly Understand by virtue of not being in the military (as she has been working non-stop with non-profit organisations to get Billy out of the second half of his tour).

Kathryn is… incredibly Men Writing Women. We are told that she was a perfect sweet-tempered honours student, and then she was involved in a terrible car accident after which she has required multiple reconstruction surgeries. Her boyfriend dumped her, and Billy trashed his car and ended up in court, and from there to the army. When we see Kathryn in flashbacks, we are told in great detail )and through Billy’s point of view) that the accident has only made her hotter, and also given her more of an attitude. It’s… uncomfortable to read a guy describing his sister’s breasts as “palmable”, a word that should be consigned to the eternal fires.

The description of every female character is similarly bad (including Beyonce and Hilary Swank, who probably never asked for this?). I get that Fountain is clearly going for realism in his lower-class male characters’ dialogue or whatever lazy excuse, but none of it’s ever really interrogated at all, and that is a cake you can’t really have and eat. It isn’t “sharp satire” if you’re just parroting what people say anyway.

There are good bits, and it’s not as though the writing is bad or anything. I enjoyed Billy’s thoughts on the bigger stuff, and his conversation in which he tried to ask a rich guy how to become rich. It’s just that I didn’t really know what Fountain was trying to say, and the sort of spiteful way almost every character was treated left a bad taste in my mouth? It (ironically) didn’t feel dark enough to get away with a full cast of unlikeable characters. It felt too earnest for that. It didn’t really know what it wanted to be, and it didn’t quite manage to be anything.

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