6/20/16 A TASTE OF NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST AND NYT BESTSELLER BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK BY BEN FOUNTAIN
“His [2½ -year-old] body was all spring and torque, a bundle of fast-twitched muscles that exuded faint floral whiffs of ripe pear. So much perfection in such a compact little person—Billy had to tackle him from time to time, wrestle him squealing to the ground just to get that little rascal in his hands…”
19-year-old American soldier Billy Lynn, stateside from Iraq on a two-week promotional tour because his company—Bravo Squad—made the news for its heroism, is essentially prostituted for patriotism on Thanksgiving Day as part of the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game. Tomorrow, Bravo will be re-deployed to Iraq.
Maybe I ordered this book because I was looking for football novels, or maybe someone gave it to me. Owing to its small print, it sat in my stack. When I finally took it up, I discovered some of the best prose I’ve read, discovered that it’s among the most quotable of books, the most bitingly satirical, and a book that speaks my mind. The novel, by the way, pre-dated by three years the shameful revelation that the NFL charged the military money, and the military paid millions, for shows of patriotism at NFL games (see, among other articles, http://money.cnn.com/2015/11/04/news/companies/team-paid-military-tributes/).
Here are some gems from inside the head of protagonist Billy Lynn:
OF WAR: “Just assume you’re going to die, so they were instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative! Roger that! Sir yes sir! Carnage awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved, the poor sad doomed honorably fucked front line who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here! A harsh thing for any young man to hear, but this is a part of every youth’s education…learning the risks are never fully revealed until you commit.”
ELSEWHERE, OF WAR: “This is a truth so brutally self-evident that he can’t fathom why it’s not more widely perceived, hence his contempt for the usual public shock and outrage when a particular situation goes to hell. The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? A slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know [the truth] but something in this land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”
AGAIN, OF WAR: “No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.”
FURTHER, OF WAR: “He wishes that once someone would call him a baby-killer, but this doesn’t seem to occur to them, that babies have been killed. Instead they talk about democracy, development… They want so badly to believe, he’ll give them that much, they are as fervent as children insisting that Santa Clause is real…”
STILL FURTHER, OF WAR: “…given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve.”
OF SHOWS OF PATRIOTISM: “…Bravo has achieved levels of proud that can move mountains and knock the moon out of phase, but why, please, do they play the national anthem before games anyway? The Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, these are two privately owned, for-profit corporations, these [the players] their contractual employees taking the field. As well play the national anthem at the top of every commercial, before every board meeting, with every deposit and withdrawal you make at the bank.”
MORE OF SHOWS OF PATRIOTISM: “If there was ever a prime-time trigger for PTSD you couldn’t do much better than this [the half-time extravaganza in which Bravo Squad is immersed]…but lucky for the forty-million-plus TV viewing audience, Bravos can deal, oh yes!…You can march these boys straight into sound-and-light-show hell and Bravo can deal, but, damn, isn’t it rude to put them through it.”
OF ADVERTISING: “Billy has noticed that audiences don’t seem to mind… All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.”
OF THE PRESS: “Tomorrow he’ll read the newspaper and wonder why this…isn’t part of the story: that the press, however grudgingly, gathered as instructed to record in its stenographic capacity [the fictional Cowboys owner’s] presentation of Bravo Squad, a blatantly formulaic marketing event that enlightened no one, revealed nothing, and served no tangible purpose other than to big-up awareness of the Cowboys brand…The bullshit part of it, isn’t that part of the story too? But not a word, not a murmur, not a peep from the press about how thoroughly they’ve been used…”
OF RELIGION: “…Billy is thinking of [dead fellow squad member] Shroom’s comment that the Christian Bible is mostly a compilation of old Sumerian legends, not something he [Billy] particularly needed to know at the time but which has afforded some solace during these past two weeks of practically nonstop public prayer. 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 hard on Billy.”
OF RAMPANT CONSUMERISM: “The concourse is teeming with fans. The natives are restless. It has been a frustrating game thus far [Cowboys are losing] and they blow off steam by spending money. Happily there is retail at every turn so the crowd doesn’t lack for buying opportunities, and it’s the same everywhere Bravo has been, the airports, the hotels, the arenas and convention centers, in the downtowns and suburbs alike, retail dominates the land. Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.”
OF ECONOMIC CLASSISM GENERATING ACTS OF VIOLENCE: “Mr. Whaley will return to the forefront of Billy’s mind…as he [Billy] hobs and nobs at the Cowboys game with some of Texas’ wealthiest citizens. The Mr. Whaleys of the world are peons to them, just as Billy is a peon in the world of Mr. Whaley, which in the grand scheme of things means that he, Billy, is somewhere on the level of a one-celled protozoan in a vast river flowing into the untold depths of the sea. He’s been having many such existential spasms lately, random seizures of futility and pointlessness that make him wonder why it matters how he lives his life. Why not wild out, go off on a rape-and-pillage binge as opposed to abiding by the moral code? So far he’s sticking to the code, but he wonders if he does just because it’s easier, requires less in the way of energy and balls.”
OF AMERICA’S SCHIZOPHRENIC HYPOCRISY RE SEX: “Beyoncé slinks one hand down the inside of her thigh, then drags it toward her snatch, not quite cupping herself at the critical point; this is the PG-rated crotch grab, suitable for family viewing.”
OF SMALL TOWN TEXANS OF MODEST MEANS: “‘You know what’s funny,’ she [Billy’s sister] said, ‘everybody around here’s such a major conservative until they get sick, get screwed over by their insurance company, their jobs go over to China or whatever, then they’re like, Oooooh, what happened? I thought America was just the greatest country ever and I’m such a good person, and why is all this terrible shit happening to me? And I was one of them, man. Just as stupid as the rest. I never thought anything bad would happen to me, or if it did there was a system that would make it all right.”
“OH FOR THE FUCK OF SHIT.” This last is a new expression of exasperation I learned from the novel, something I’m always in desperate need of if I watch TV news, or try with my bare hands to open a jar of pickles in the kitchen, or engage in conversation while crossing paths with any number of my fellow Americans, or attempt to figure out something irregular happening with my computer.
“…[A]s if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn thing to another?”
Thank you, Billy Lynn, for spilling your guts.