The best novel I read this year for idle diversion, as opposed to those I read to review (which included some gems), is Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a first novel that follows the author’s justly acclaimed short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. The present book joins a growing body of novels about the screen age’s dominant species of bad faith: the manufacture of “reality” as a consumer product and means of control. Put that way, it sounds joyless, knuckle-rapping, and 100 percent simple-minded, but the books I have in mind are exactly the reverse. They are acerbic black comedies and all the more ingeniously devastating for it. I am thinking of such novels as Max Barry’s The Company, Jess Walter’s The Zero and Beautiful Ruins (both of which I did review with pleasure), and, at a stretch, I might add this year’s The Fear Index, a chilling, strangely underrated thriller by Robert Harris.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set in the now-demolished Texas Stadium during the presidency of George W. Bush. Nineteen-year-old Billy joined the Army right out of high school as an alternative to an ironclad felony charge for trashing the car of his sister’s former fiancé and chasing the despicable would-be M.B.A. with a crowbar. He had his reasons. We meet him back from Iraq, at the end of a two-week “Victory Tour” with the eight surviving physically able members of his unit, a squad Fox News, in its branding wisdom, has dubbed Bravo Company. The network has anointed the soldiers heroes for a bloody action at a place called Al-Ansakar Canal; and, though the men were certainly brave — Billy foremost among them for trying to save his dying buddy — the crucial detail is that the battle was caught on film, footage now “viraling through the culture.” Only two days away from returning to Iraq, Bravo is sharing with Beyoncé the role of halftime pièce de résistance for the Thanksgiving Day game between Cowboys and Bears. At the same time, the squad is party to a possible movie deal being drummed up by a Hollywood creature called Albert (“black cashmere overcoat and cashmere scarf, and sleek, dainty loafers that appear to be made of pliable chocolate bars”).
Here I have to say that if I had not been assured and reassured by my very best friend that this novel was for me, I might have bailed out at page 39, the second time the format explodes into scattered words and phrases:
And so on, stutter-stepping down the page. Only a few more such eruptions occur, but why they do is a genuine mystery, because the rest of the book is simply, unimpeachably brilliant.
Let’s start with Texas Stadium, rising hideously to swell to “Death Star proportions” as Bravo approaches it in a stretch Hummer. Though a Texan, Billy has never actually seen the place except “through the expurgating medium of TV.” It is a horror, with greater horror underpinning the image: The stadium’s inner spaces, even those carved out for owner and rich patrons, are cheerless and shoddy, “concrete walls and cheap all-weather carpet that wicks the cold up through the floor in a palpable draft.” At night, the stadium plaza “is lit like a prison exercise yard, all glaring white lights and jabby shadows.” And the immense compass of the stands is an existential nightmare: Climbing up the rows, Bill finds himself “fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow.” This dreadful place distills the truth of America media culture, the force that has transformed Bravo from insignificant human beings to a “floating hologram of context and cue,” and that truth is that behind the veil of fantasy and wishful thinking lies a crude and ugly world.
Everything — or at least the idea of everything — is laid on for the heroes: turkey dinner, souvenir footballs, “personalized” photos of themselves with owner Norm Oglesby, introduction to the cheerleaders (bodies “firm as steel-belted radials”), and endless, burdensome adoration. The last comes in the shape of their own huge images on the Jumbotron, the pious, plucking hands of countless fans, and ecstasies of onanistic gratitude from people for whom emotion can be reality because they have nothing at stake, people, that is, who have never, and never will, set foot in a combat boot. For Billy:
His ordeal becomes theirs and vice versa, some sort of mystical transference takes place…. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they think of 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.”
Rarely has a war been waged with such effortless, gaseous self-congratulation as this one, and Fountain is a virtuoso of its fulsome, self-regarding banalities, unctuous bromides, and the patter of the herd: every blatting note perfectly rendered. An oilman tells of his own steadfast commitment: “Some of my friends’ kids are serving over there with you…. So it’s a personal thing with me, boosting domestic production, lessening our dependence on foreign oil. I figure the better I do my job, the sooner we can bring you young men home.”
Even though Billy is somewhat more articulate of thought than he might have been were he not a literary creation, he has a back-story that fleshes him out as a believable character. His are the eyes and the sensibility through which underlying reality is glimpsed, one whose animating force, he comes to see, is money.
Life in the Army has been a crash course in the scale of the world, which is such that he finds himself in a constant state of wonder as to how things come to be. Stadiums, for example. Airports. The interstate highway system. Wars.… He imagines a shadowy, math-based parallel world that exists not just beside but amid the physical world, a transparent interlay of Matrix-style numbers through which flesh-and-blood humans move like fish through kelp. This is where the money lives, an inter-based realm of code and logic, geometric modules of cause and effect.… It seems the airiest thing there is and yet the realest, but how you enter that world he has no idea except by passage through that other foreign country called college.
Even if they survive their next tour of duty — and however many more the present “stop-loss” policy generates — Billy and his fellow grunts will never be part of that world. And just how little they are valued in fact — which is to say, in financial terms — is made increasingly clear in the darkly comic negotiations over the hoped-for movie option agreement, the proposed figure dwindling to peanuts. It is the bootless dickering over making the film, as well as Billy’s unlikely romance with a cheerleader and some gratifyingly bad behavior on the part of Bravo that serve as the book’s plot. Anything more complex would be wasted in the boisterous presence of the exceedingly funny, wickedly skewering set pieces, each lit up by Fountain’s genius for metaphor and imagery. The book is effervescent with them as “players come jogging onto the field like rhinos on the plod,” and Billy is gobbled up by “the medias” whose “cameras…click away like parakeets cracking seeds” and who “hoover up his words with sleek little recording gadgets that look like protein bars.” One has to fight the urge to quote the whole book.
Throughout this marvelous novel, the truly fantastic sham represented by stadium and players, and the power of the money that engendered them grows: If only this were reality, the solution to the unraveling war in Iraq would be at hand: Send in the NFL! Strangely — or otherwise — when Billy invites the players to do just that, join the Army, one millionaire warrior snorts with astonishment: ” ‘We got jobs,… Fah like, wha, three years? Break our contract an’ all.’ Hilarious. They’re laughing. Little squeals and snuffling yips escape their mouths.”
The whole glorious novel is an intoxicating mixture of flamboyance and deadpan, of high-caliber wit and perfectly measured bathos. This is media America at war. Mission accomplished.