During Shalom Auslander’s hilarious black comedy Hope: A Tragedy, the central character voices the following about 9/11. (*) ‘Never forgetting isn’t the same as never shutting up about it’. This sentiment came to mind when reading Ben Fountain’s excoriating critique of America’s attitude to its soldiers and the War on Terror.
Private Billy Lynn is a member of Bravo company, a group of young soldiers who were involved in a bloody dogfight against Iraqi insurgents. They bravely fought to defend their comrades, and though some died, Bravo company was victorious. Now seizing a golden PR opportunity, the US army and government bring them home for a two week morale boosting tour of America. Now, on the last day of the tour before they have to return to Iraq, Bravo company are guests of honor at a Dallas Cowboys match.
It’s quite hard to describe just how good this novel is. It is political and social comedy at its finest. Comparison with Catch 22 is inevitable. They both skewer the absurdity of war, but if Heller analysed the front line, Fountain turns his lens to the home front. (There is also a delightful riff on Catch 22, when talking about gaining funding for ‘Bravo Company The Movie’.)
Bravo company are a well-drawn set of characters. A rag-tag assortment of men society would normally be content to ignore, forged, by the terror of war, into a tight-knit band of brothers. None of the group are particularly original from a literary perspective, but they are wonderfully vivid, and the camaraderie between them pitch-perfect.
The strength of the novel lies with how Fountain portrays the interaction of Bravo company with ‘real’ America. Most of the book is set behind the scenes at the Cowboys game, where the company are pushed from pillar to post meeting dignitaries and sponsors. Wherever they go, the men are told how proud people are of them, how they are upholding America’s freedom. In reality, the people they talk to are interested in one thing, what is it like to kill a man? Within this bloodthirsty request for information, there is always a religious subtext. It is during these exchanges, that I found the similarities to Auslander’s novel. The continual reiteration of atrocities past, stokes the fires of perpetual hatred.
Despite everybody wanting a piece of Bravo company, nobody really listens to them. Billy Lynn spends the whole book in search of an Advil, promises are made, but none are kept. A state of affairs that persists far beyond his search for pharmaceuticals. The novel reaches its apex when the military and rampant commercialism collide. There are two chapters where the men meet the Dallas Cowboys themselves, and then take a peek at their equipment room. These chapters are satirical fiction at its best, worthy of Heller at the height of his powers. The differences in care, preparation and attitudes of government funded soldiers, trained to kill, and American footballers, trained to throw a ball, are starkly laid out. There is an important message here, but it also comedy gold. Once the game begins, the lives Bravo company only become more strange.
As the novel moves to its conclusion, Billy sees how Bravo company are treated as a commodity. Few people are interested in the soldiers, only how they can use them to gain an advantage, either politically or in business. ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk’ is a novel of many nuances. At its heart is political satire, but it is considerably more than that. This novel is about camaraderie and loyalty. Loyalty to your country, and your country’s loyalty to you.
I read recently (in a rather pompous article), that good literary fiction should renew the English language. On top of everything else Ben Fountain does this too. His prose is scintillating, filled with sentences made from words that should never be used together, yet somehow work perfectly. On every level this novel is a triumph. Perhaps the one thing War is good for, is producing high quality, emotive literary fiction.
* I may not have this quote quite right, and it may well be about the Holocaust and not 9/11 – but please forgive my faulty memory