The Iraq war hasn't yet had its Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five, but Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a contender.
This debut novel by Dallas resident Ben Fountain takes on that misbegotten war with satire. The eight surviving men of Bravo Squad, stars of a viral video of a firefight on an Iraqi canal bank in the early months of the war, are brought back to the United States for a two-week "Victory Tour." It culminates at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day (where most of the book takes place) — before they're sent right back to the war.
Satire can have a short shelf life, given its frequent focus on the political and the immediate. It can also be a chilly genre, one that treats characters as props or symbols instead of breathing life into them.
Joseph Heller's and Kurt Vonnegut's great World War II satires both transcended those problems, and Fountain's book does as well, for many of the same reasons: deeply believable characters, a wicked sense of humor, wonderful writing and, beneath the anger and outrage, a generous heart.
The novel's title character is a 19-year-old infantry private from Stovall, Texas, a restless kid who, two weeks before high school graduation, used a crowbar to systematically destroy a car belonging to the MBA candidate who broke his engagement to Billy's sister Kathryn — three weeks after she was horribly injured in a car crash. Billy avoids felony charges by joining the Army and soon lands in Iraq.
Four months in comes that fateful firefight, which leaves one soldier, the philosophical Sgt. Breem, a.k.a. 'Shroom, dead, and another, Spc. Lake, legless. It also makes Billy a media star — an embedded Fox News team captures him trying to save 'Shroom while mowing down insurgents.
Billy still can hardly speak of that day, and he finds the video "so real it looks fake." But that's just the start of the surrealism as Bravo is chauffeured and flown around a 14-city tour — "practically every one, as Sergeant Dime pointed out, happened to lie in an electoral swing state."
Dime is Bravo's leader in more ways than one. Intensely intelligent, he comes from Southern old money but doesn't want anyone to know it; he also masks his rage at the absurdity of the war itself and the shabby treatment of its soldiers — unless they're media stars.
Bravo is toted to the White House, of course: "At some point Billy realized he was expecting the president to act, well, embarrassed? Ashamed? For how f----- up everything obviously was. But the commander in chief seemed well pleased with the state of things."
Everywhere they go they're greeted with hearty handshakes and hugs and buzzwords. Fountain renders the last in Texas tones and spaces them out on the page like gnats flying around Billy's head: "currj...terrRists... ire way of life...nina leven...nina leven....nina leven."
Along the way, Bravo has picked up a movie producer intent on telling the squad's story. Albert is always on the phone with Hanks' people or Clooney's people or Swank's people. ("She wants to play both of you," he tells Dime and Billy.)
He's with them through the long day of the Cowboys game, at which Bravo is supposed to participate in some unspecified way in a halftime show that includes Destiny's Child and the Cowboys cheerleaders. (What the soldiers would like to participate in with Beyoncé, her bandmates and the buxom cheerleaders isn't difficult to imagine.)
In the meantime, they're stuck with endless photo ops involving Norm Oglesby, the Cowboys' hustling, domineering owner (any resemblance to Jerry Jones is, I'm sure, coincidental), and his entourage.
They also get a tour of the Cowboys' locker room, peopled by players that make Billy think of "when humans the size of Clydesdales roamed the earth," and of their astonishing equipment room, crammed with thousands of shoes, pads, custom helmets, "700 towels a game," mountains of gear that offer stark contrast to what Bravo's soldiers are supplied with for real combat.
Why not, Billy thinks, "send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are at this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!"
Then it's on to that halftime extravaganza, which Fountain renders in all its over-the-top, crass glory. "Toy soldiers and sexytime all mashed together into one big inspirational stew. ... Short of blood sacrifice or actual sex on the field, you couldn't devise a better spectacle for turning up the heat."
Bravo's members, most of them drunk, stoned or both after a long, cold, mostly boring day, end up amid all the bursting fireworks and booming drums: "If there was ever a prime-time trigger for PTSD you couldn't do much better than this."
Yes, pro football, not to mention Texas oil magnates, Hollywood hustlers and war supporters who wouldn't dream of fighting one themselves or sending their own sons and daughters to do so, all add up to one big barrel full of fish for a satirist to target.
But Fountain doesn't always take the obvious tack; he keeps surprising. And what really fills this novel is his poignant, raucous, respectful portrayal of the men of Bravo. Fountain doesn't romanticize them. They're working class, hardscrabble kids, many of them minorities, all "surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation."
One moment they're big, rambunctious boys whose affection is expressed in obscenities and insults. When Billy actually gets together with a cheerleader — he doesn't just get her digits, he barely escapes with his virginity intact — they're all hoots and howls and secret pride.
But let anything threaten one of them (and that halftime show proves more dangerous than you might think), and we instantly see the fighting unit that earned those heroes' laurels:
"They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death ... That is their advantage, and 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."
On this Memorial Day weekend, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk carries an extra charge. Once a day set aside to honor our nation's war dead, it's now a three-day weekend that's a noisy consumer scrum of cookouts and mattress sales and roaring auto races — a lot like that halftime show. Fountain's novel asks us to think about those who fight and sometimes die for us — and about the reasons we ask them to do so.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.