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billy lynn's long halftime walk

24 september 2013

As I read Ben Fountain's excellent novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I kept expecting Billy Lynn to take a long halftime walk. It's certainly foreshadowed. Billy, the 19-year-old Iraq War hero who (with his comrades) features in the TV broadcast of a Dallas Cowboys game in the course of the novel, worries continuously about the "humiliation [that] always stalks the common man when he ventures onto the tube" (10). Nothing quite as bad as you imagine ever happens; and as you'd imagine, the ultimate result is a lot worse.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is set in the mid-2000s at the creaking, and freezing, old Texas Stadium in Irving. But one can't help feel the resonances of the story in the 2010s. The stadium is in Arlington now, it's newer, it's bigger, and the rhetoric has grown accordingly. But at every Cowboys game, some military personnel are featured guests, and a significant portion of every game day is spent thanking them for securing our freedoms, giving them stuff, playing them patriotic songs, displaying them and their families on the world's largest television set, and watching as their reflected glory shines off the gleaming noggin of Jerry Jones.

Jones is not named in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but he is thinly fictionalized as the appalling Norm Oglesby. (No, wait; a title-page disclaimer says that the novel is "a work of pure fiction … drawn from the author's imagination." Must be coincidence, then.) One of the subplots of Halftime Walk revolves around a Hollywood producer trying to get "Norm Oglesby" to bankroll a film about the exploits of Billy's "Bravo Squad." The subplot is overdrawn, perhaps, but it highlights the narcissism of those who refract their corporate brand through the suffering of veterans.

The characters in Halftime Walk – a platoon like many another in war fiction – relive some of their combat experience, but the more salient scenes in the novel are of them being thanked, ritually and repeatedly, for defending our nation against … well, against quite what, none of the thankers can articulate. There are few better evocations in recent literature of the disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

Fountain's novel has drawn comparisons to Catch-22, and they fit. It also reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five (not idly is the protagonist named "Billy"). And there's more than a hint of Don DeLillo in Halftime Walk. The conjunction of ballgame with geopolitics recalls "Pafko at the Wall," and the Texas football setting offers a healthy helping of End Zone.

But Fountain transcends his models at the same time that he honors them. His 21st-century settings ring true: Billy Lynn's is a world of viral videos and text messages, a world where everybody's 15 minutes of fame has been extended indefinitely. Billy's Iraq War is both a lived trauma and a pastiche of the movies and memoirs that dramatize it as it happens, even before it happens.

There's less football here than you'd expect in a novel set almost entirely during a football game. Football, after all, is boring, as one of Billy's squadmates opines. The very dullness of the specific game and its overscripted halftime antics provides a perfect setting for Halftime Walk's surrealism. Where else but at an NFL game can you get 100,000 people together to do everything but watch the event that purports to be the reason for assembling them? And so this cold Thanksgiving in Irving, Texas comes to be about everything but football: sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, families, the media, God and country, and post-traumatic stress. I think it's a novel people will turn to to understand the early 21st century in America.

Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. New York: Ecco [HarperCollins], 2012.