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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

May 2, 2016

I can’t resist a satire, so when I read about Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on someone’s blog (wish I could remember whose—was it yours?) and saw it called satiric, I had to read it.

The main action of the novel takes place on one day—Thanksgiving Day—at the super bowl football game in Dallas, Texas. The eight remaining men of Bravo Squad, temporarily back from the Iraq war, have been declared heroes, and so they have been given leave and are now being taken to the super bowl and being paraded as heroes at half-time.

I like the representation of the way Billy hears only individual words, some of them in a Texas accent, when he’s in a crowd, like in the hotel lobby before they set off for the football stadium—these words are spread out unevenly across half a page:
“terrorist, freedom, evil, nina leven, nina leven, nina leven, troops, currj…”

The story of what the Bravos did in battle, a confusing memory for the protagonist, Billy, is being considered for a big movie deal:
“It is a heroic tale, not without tragedy. A tale of heroism ennobled by tragedy. Movies about Iraq have ‘underperformed’ at the box office, and that’s a problem, according to Albert, but not Bravo’s problem. The war might be up to its ass in moral ambiguity, but Brave’s triumph busts through all that. The Bravo story is a rescue story, with all the potent psychology of the rescue plot. People respond deeply to such stories, Albert has told them. Everyone worries, everyone feels at least a little bit doomed basically all the time, even the richest, most successful, most secure among us live in perpetually anxious states of barely hanging on. Desperation’s just part of being human, so when relief comes in whatever form, as knights in shining armor, say, or digitized eagles swooping down on the flaming slopes of Mordor, or the U.S. cavalry charging out of yonder blue, that’s a powerful trigger in the human psyche. Validation, redemption, life snatched from the jaws of death, all very powerful stuff. Powerful. ‘What you guys did out there,’ Albert has assured them, ‘that’s the happiest possible result of the human condition. It gives us hope, we’re allowed to feel hopeful about our lives. There’s not a person on the planet who wouldn’t pay to see that movie.’”

However, as Billy’s confused memories of having survived the battle remind us, hope is not what the humans who were actually present got from the experience. “The Fox footage shows him firing with one hand and working on Shroom with the other, but he doesn’t remember that.”

Billy is still trying to make sense of the experience of the battle and the loss of his friend who died, but the traditional Christians he’s met aren’t helping at all, especially “Pastor Rick,” who keeps texting him aphorisms.

The people they meet at the super bowl mostly respond to them in aphorisms, too, until Billy’s sergeant, Dime, loses his patience and tells one of them “We like violence, we like going lethal! I mean, isn’t that what you’re paying us for? To take the fight to American’s enemies and send them straight to hell?”

The satire, of course, is not simply about the war. It’s about the nation that sends these boys off to war. As Billy’s sister says, “everybody around here’s such a major conservative till they get sick, get screwed over by their insurance company, their job goes over to China or whatever, then they’re like, ‘Ooooooh, what happened? I thought America was just the greatest country ever and I’m such a good person, why is all this terrible shit happening to me?”

The halftime show is a culmination of all the ridiculousness Billy has seen on this day: “ it is a rat-bite fever dream of soldiers, marching bands, blizzards of bodies bumping and grinding, whoofs of fireworks, multiple drum lines cranking go-team-go. Destiny’s Child! Drill grunts! Toy soldiers and sexytime all mashed together into one big inspirational stew. How many dozens of times has Bravo watched Crack’s Conan DVDs, many dozens, they knew every line by heart, and out of all the streamings and veerings of his over-amped brain Billy flashes on the palace orgy scene, James Earl Jones as the snake king slurping and licking and humping in glassy-eyed bliss. It creeps him, the overlay of that sludgy sex scene on what he sees before him now, the complete and utter weirdness of the half-time show and the fact that everybody seems okay with it.”

At the end of the day, the Bravos get into a limo and prepare to be sent back to the war. Billy’s last action is to put on his seat belt, hearing “that snick like the final lock of a vast and complex system.” There may or may not eventually be a movie about their battle, but they probably will not live to see it.

It’s a dark satire, full of situations and people that most Americans will recognize. You might even see yourself.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2016 11:28 am

    We read this for our book group last year, and it was conducive to a good discussion. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. Maybe because it reflected reality too much – made me uncomfortable? I guess that’s a sign of good literature.

    • May 9, 2016 11:30 am

      It’s certainly a sign of good satire. Satire is supposed to make you uncomfortable, so you want to change what’s wrong.

  2. May 12, 2016 11:01 am

    Ugh, it sounds most uncomfortable. When this election season is making me uncomfortable enough.

    • May 12, 2016 11:03 am

      That’s a good connection–it’s our hypocrisy and double-thinking about the Iraq war that led up to some of the things about this election that are making people I know uncomfortable!

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