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Books, Documentaries, Reviews: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, Ben Fountain

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  June 23, 2014

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ben Fountain

 

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It’s a prize winner–and it should be:

National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Finalist, National Book Award

Finalist UK National Book Award

Los Angeles Ties Book Award for Fiction

Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize

Texas Institute of letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Fiction

Pen New England Cerulli Award For Excellence in Sports Fiction

And, here’s the The New York Times book review:   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/books/review/billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-by-ben-fountain.html

BUT, 

while I think everyone in America should read this novel, I know that not all that many, in terms of total percentages, will.  Which is too bad, as this country badly needs a corrective in its national consciousness about the thing we call war. 

I will caution that this novel involves a group of Army soldiers who talk like soldiers and, often, act like the 19 and 20-something year olds that they are.  These fellows have been exposed to terror and fear and actual combat for some time.  In one encounter, an embedded cameraman captures heroic actions in a fight that gets uploaded onto utube and plays on the nightly news.  We now have the “Bravo Heroes” who have been brought home for a “victory” tour designed to make a case for the war.  This “vacation” from the war is undergirded horribly by the certain knowledge that they will be going back very shortly.

Fountain has mounted a devastating critique of a country of well-meaning nice folks who speak a cultural language ABOUT war (freedom, kick their buts, did your duty, Nine 11, terrorists) and enjoy violent games (football) and mindlessly send young men to war without really understanding what happens to those young men when the full impact of actual war with all its violence surrounds them.  Nor do these citizens understand the relative ineffectiveness of this (Iraq) war effort.  Nor do these same nice folks understand how these young men feel when they come home and encounter the fact that the country whose “freedom” they are fighting for is but a giant shopping mall with a country attached (as Fountain says somewhere in the book)–complete with wealthy industry captains (like the owner of the Cowboys football team who tries to win what he wants at all costs and without any regard for actual human beings and who behaves beyond despicably when he does not “win” what he wants from these soldiers.  The underbelly of that mindset is much like closing that bridge in New Jersey to get back at a local mayor.)

Here’s a quote:

Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives.  Billy knows because here at the contact point he feels the passion every day.  Often it’s in their literal touch, a jolt arcing across as they shake hands, a zap of pent-up warrior heat.  For so many of them, this is the Moment:  His ordeal becomes theirs and vice versa, some sort of mystical transference takes place and it’s just too much for most of them, judging from the way they choke in the clutch.  They stammer, gulp, brainfart, and babble, gum up all the things they want to say or never had the words to say them in the first place, so they default to old habits.  They want autographs.  They want cell phone snaps.  They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.  One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is her gratitude.  Another asks if we are winning, and Billy says we’re working hard.  “You and your brother soldiers are preparing the way,” one man murmurs, and Billy knows better than to ask the way to what.  The next man points to, almost touches, Billy’s Silver Star.  “That’s some serious hardware  you got,” he says gruffly, projecting a flinty, man-of-the-world affection.  “Thanks,” Billy says, although that never seems quite the right response.  “I read the article in Time,” the man continues, and now he does touch the medal, which seems nearly as lewd as if he’d reached down and stroked Billy’s balls.  “Be proud,” the man tells him, “you earned this,” and Billy thinks without rancor, How do you know?  Several days ago he was doing local TV and the blithering twit-savant of a TV newsperson just came out and asked:  What was it like?  Being shot at, shooting back.  Killing people, almost getting killed yourself.  Having friends and comrades die right before your eyes.  Billy coughed up clots of nonsequential mumblings, but as he talked a second line dialed up in his head and a stranger started talking, whispering the truer words that Billy couldn’t speak.  It was raw.  It was some fucked-up shit.  It was the blood and breath of the world’s worst abortion, baby Jesus shat out in squishy little turds.

That newsperson sounds a bit like the one in the Hunger Games movies…

Doesn’t s/he?

You know, as long as we are distracted by the “bread and circus” of American life, we will not “see” what’s really going on in America these days.  And underneath this story, is a plea to follow the money, to reject the fireworks and stars at halftime, to understand the real costs being extracted from all of us…

This novel also resonates strongly with Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, which I discussed elsewhere on this blog.

 

Written by louisaenright

June 23, 2014 at 2:11 pm

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