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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk


“Billy, you are a philosopher.”
“Hell no, I’m just a grunt.”
—Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Do not judge a book by its cover. Do not judge a book by its title. Do not judge a book by the blurb on the back of the quotes on the front. Judge a book by the words within. All the rest just gets in the way and clouds the issue. I hated the cover to this book—both the British and American hardback editions—and I wasn’t crazy about the title, but when Karl Marlantes said it was “the Catch-22 of the Iraq War” I couldn’t help but find my hopes lifted. The blurb too, as blurbs do, promised much and I wanted to trust it but having had to write my own blurbs I know just how easy it can be to string together a lot of things that are technically true about your book but which also manage at the same time to completely misrepresent it. When I sent my thank you e-mail to the nice lady at Canongate (who sent me this without my even asking for it) I expressed my concerns:

Hope it lives up to the quote on the cover. Catch-22 is a hard act to follow. A part of me wishes people would stop referencing books like that; it so often sets a book up to fail. The number of books that say they're Catcher in the Rye for the [fill in the blank] Generation is just unreal.

She agreed with me and left me to make my own mind up. Which I did.

This is only superficially a book about the Iraq War. Unlike Catch-22 we don’t even get to see any action; the theatre of war is seven thousand miles away; the only theatre we have here is the modern amphitheatre that is the home of the Dallas Cowboys. Apart from a single chapter where we join Billy on visit with his family all the action takes place in Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving where the Cowboys host their own private Superbowl. Being neither an American—although I am married to one—nor a sports fan I really don’t have much of an appreciation for how big the sport is. To put it into perspective 111 million people sat down to watch the actual Super Bowl played in 2011, almost as many as watched the final episode of M.A.S.H., which was 121.6 million. I mention this for good reason because Americans are big on patriotism and national pride. They love nothing more than to sit around and be American, marinate in their Americanness in front of the TV. Or at least that’s how it comes across over here on this side of the pond.

Catch-22What are we fighting for? “The hot dog, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mom's apple pie. That's what everyone's fighting for.” That’s what Yossarian says in Catch-22 although I suspect he’s being facetious. It’s a question every soldier must ask themselves. It’s a good question to ask. And I imagine many of American’s finest will have found themselves agreeing with Superman pre-2005: "truth, justice and the American way." Not for oil then. After the events of the Infinite Crisis miniseries this was changed to "truth, justice and hope" and in the 2006 film the Daily Planet’s editor-in-chief Perry White simply talks about "truth, justice, all that stuff." The American way of life is not what it was. This reminds me of what the old man says to the nineteen-year-old Nately in Catch-22:

'There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!' [Nately] declared.

'Isn't there?' asked the old man. 'What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.'

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is eminently quotable. Hardly a page goes by that there’s not something but, for me, the critical line comes on the very last page as the soldiers are about to leave:

“Before they kill us … Take us someplace safe. Take us back to the war.”

It’s not Billy Lynn that says that but it could have been any one of Bravo squad as they have come to be known—inaccurately—by Fox News; they are the heroes of Al-Ansakar Canal (all three minutes and forty-three seconds of it) who are on the last leg of their two week Victory Tour having been “QT’d to Baghdad on two hours’ notice and thence across the sea” in an attempt to bolster the public’s support in the war.

  • Staff Sergeant Kellum Holliday known as Day
  • Staff Sergeant David Dime
  • Specialist Londis a.k.a. Cum Load, Pant Load, or just plain Load
  • Specialist Kenneth Sykes who will never be anything other than Sucks
  • Specialist Brian Herbert known as A-bort
  • Specialist Robert Earl Koch as in coke which makes him Crack and Crack kills!
  • Specialist Marchellino Montoya or Mango
  • Specialist William “Billy” Lynn

Shroom never made it and Lake was grievously wounded. So it’s just these eight figureheads who arrive at the stadium in a plush limo along with their PA escort, Hilary_SwankMajor McLaurin (known as Major Mac) and Albert Ratner, a film producer who is trying to get their story told in the big screen and—hopefully—with Hilary Swank playing one of the guys which, surprisingly, none seem to object to.

They are here on the final day of their tour around the States where they have been patted on the back by the rich, the famous, had their hands shaken by men in the street and been hugged by girls in skimpy outfits. It has been a whirl and it’s coming to an end. They have one last thing to do before they have to head back to complete their tour of duty in Iraq, a ‘something’; no one has yet told them what exactly that ‘something’ will be but they arrive early and have hours to while away before their moment in the spotlight.

[N]o one knows the actual drill. They might have lines to speak. They might be interviewed. There’s talk that they’ll take part in the halftime show [where] there is the possibility that they’ll be coaxed, cajoled, steamrolled, or otherwise harassed into doing something incredibly embarrassing and lame.

Before all that they get shunted here and shunted there. They get to rub shoulders with rich sponsors, meet the guy who looks after all the equipment, the players, the cheerleaders (three each—all very organised) and hang out with the Cowboys’ hard-nosed businessman/owner, Norm Oglesby. There’s always the possibility they might meet Destiny’s Child too but no one’s promising anything. But the big thing that is on their mind is the film. Albert says he can get them $100,000 each for their story. But getting a film made even when that film is about the media darlings that Bravo have become is not easy. There’s a catch:

“Fifteen million,” Albert is saying … “Fifteen cash against fifteen percent of gross, a star can do that when they’re running hot. And Hilary’s running very hot these days. Her agent won’t let her read without a guarantee.”

“Read what?” Sykes asks. Albert’s eyes slowly track that way, followed by his head.

“The script, Kenneth.”

“But I thought you said we don’t have a script.”

“We don’t, but we’ve got a treatment and we’ve got a writer. And now that Hilary’s interested, we can slant it in a way that really speaks to her.”

“I love it when he talks like that,” says Dime.

“Look, the script’s not the problem, just telling your story’s gonna make a compelling script. The hard part’s getting the thing in her hands.”

“You said you know her,” Crack points out.

“Hell yes I know her! We got bombed off our ass a couple of months ago at Jane Fonda’s house! But this is business, guys, everything she reads has to go through her agent, and he won’t let her so much as touch a script unless it comes with a firm offer from a studio. That way she knows if she says yes, the studio’s on the book. She can’t get turned down.”

“Uh, so do we have a studio?” Crack asks. He knows he should know this, but everything about the deal seems so abstract.

“Robert, we do not. There’s tons of interest out there, but nobody wants to commit until a star commits.”

“But Swank won’t commit until they do.”

Albert smiles. “Precisely.”

It’s not quite a catch-22 situation but it’s about the closest we get to it in the book and a clear nod to Heller. Really comparing the two books is unfair, though; yes, both are satires but Fountain’s is more realistic in its tone. There are clichés aplenty but no caricatures. Also this book isn’t about the morality of war or even the rights or wrongs of the Iraq War although one question that people keep looking for the soldiers to answer is: We’re doing the right thing over there? or something similar to that, anything to salve their consciences, to reassure them that the cost (human, financial, political, ethical) was all worth it.

There is another scene, however, that more closely reminds one of Heller’s famous condition. Billy’s sister, Kathryn, is trying to get her brother to go AWOL:

“I’m not psyche [Kathryn], if that’s what the lawyers are thinking. So they can forget about that.”

“Of course you’re not psyche, only a nut would want to go back to the war. We’ll have the lawyers plead temporary insanity for you, how about that? You’re too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynn has come to his senses. It’s the rest of the country that’s nuts for wanting to send him back.”

The question that drives Catch-22 is: What does a sane man do in an insane society? The question that Billy probably needs to ask is: How do you know you’re not crazy? Most of us would say we’re not but what if everyone around us is crazy? How could we tell? Kathryn pleads with Billy when he visits his family and sends a barrage of e-mails the next day trying to get him to change his mind. At the same time he’s also getting assailed by e-mails from a megachurch preacher who clearly wants to milk him for all the promotion he can get. Billy is not a philosopher. He says it himself, he’s a grunt, an uneducated Texan, a nineteen-year-old Virgin Soldier who probably signed-up for the wrong reasons but now that he’s there he’s been infected by the camaraderie that surrounds him; the idea of abandoning his squaddies has become unthinkable. That said he is struggling answering that question I posed earlier: What are we fighting for? This is where Shroom keeps reappearing. He haunts Billy and not just because the man died in Billy’s arms but because of the conversations they had prior to his death: Shroom made Billy think Spark-Notes-Catch-22-9631293-5and now he can’t stop. He’s not a coward but he’s also not crazy. Like Yossarian—although he’s nothing like Yossarian—he’s found himself caught up in his own personal catch-22: life is not worth living without a moral concern for the well-being of others, but a moral concern for the well-being of others endangers one’s life. (Thank you Spark Notes.)

Over the length of 307 pages Billy tries to answer these questions. To do so he deconstructs America. And once he’s pulled it to pieces he doesn’t know how to put it back together again. This is my only real criticism as far as this book goes because the author makes his point most convincingly within the first few dozen pages; he then he keeps finding new and interesting and then not quite so interesting ways to make it again and again. There’s really not much of a story here but that’s okay up to a point. I just think that you could lose 100 pages and the book would not suffer. Keep the bits about Billy’s unexpected romance with that luscious born-again cheerleader—that was sweet actually—and keep the chapter where he goes home, if only for the inclusion of his wheelchair-bound father whizzing around the house and his sister irreverently wearing his medals like tassels on her boobs. There are lots of conversations that just blur into one and, apart from Billy, it’s occasionally hard to tell one soldier from another but that’s not such a big issue either. So if you’re thinking this was going to be a book where a lot of people got blown up and there was plenty of action then this probably isn’t for you. There is a lot of talking and thinking and generally hanging around eating, drinking (when they can), smiling politely and fielding awkward, stupid and predictable questions. “Billy gets passed around like everybody's favourite bong.”

You can’t go back home. It’s never home again. How could America have changed so much? But then it’s not America that’s changed; it’s Billy’s perception of America. His eyes have been opened. It’s all superficial. It’s all for show. None of it means a damn thing.

Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought—send them to fight the war!

Reviews of this book are mixed but veer towards the positive. The general consensus is that comparing it to Catch-22 hasn’t done it any favours and Heller’s book is the better book. As I said, they’re different books. Its length gets mentioned often, too. It is too long. What makes it feel even longer is the style of writing which is dense and considered. In an interview Ben said:

I would love to write more simply and faster, but when it’s on the page it doesn’t look right to me. It lacks some measure of authenticity that I’m trying to get. The work is just not going to be right unless and until it’s at least right on the line-by-line level.

We were talking about Ezra Pound the other night. In The ABC of Reading, he broke it down into three ways you produce an emotional effect on a reader. There’s phanopoeia, throwing an image on the reader’s mental retina, and there’s melopoeia, using the sounds of the words themselves to evoke some kind of emotion, and then there’s logopoeia, which is taking a word or a phrase and using it in a different context from what the reader is used to. Prose writers, at least this prose writer, would be well served to study the poets and see how they get that maximum compression, that maximum charge of meaning in each line. If we can hook that compression of language to the narrative drive, then I feel like we’re getting close to delivering the whole package.

This feels like stream of consciousness writing and the fact that it crams all its action into a single day can’t help but remind one of Ulysses. I rarely read more than a chapter or two of the shorter ones in a row so, for me, it was a slow read. That said the writing is excellent on the whole. A few words appear that Billy would never have known and would never have used even if he had known them but clearly the omniscient narrator is better read than Billy. That many of the characters come across as two-dimensional and stereotypical is not bad writing—that is the point, they are cardboard cut-outs—but when it comes to the soldiers it does feel a bit as if they’re all talking with the one voice and that would be Fountain’s. Another minor criticism some raised was that Ben has never been to war. What gives him the right to write about American soldiers? His answer:

I don’t really want to go to Iraq, and I’m not planning on going. The book takes place in the United States, for one thing. It’s more about the United States than Iraq. Mailer said, If there is five percent of a character in me, I can write that character. He felt like he had enough writing chops to tease the part that was in him out. Develop it. Explore it. Make it into a full-fledged character. Mailer is a guy who wrote a first-person novel about Jesus. And his last book was from the point of view of a demon who had great influence over Hitler’s life. That’s pretty much running the gamut. A lot of Mailer’s enemies would certainly agree about the demon part. [Laughs] But anyway, it’s almost like method acting. You find an experience in your past that matches the emotional experience of the character you’re playing. We can also be method writers. It’s in us, these other experiences, these other natures.

Catcher in the RyeRemember what I said at the start about The Catcher in the Rye? One Amazon reviewer said of this book: "Billy Lynn.. serves as an updated Catcher in the Rye for the current generation of young, existentially angst-ridden men.” It doesn’t—other than the fact Billy is surrounded by what Holden would have called “phonies” (I agree with the reviewer there)—but reading that made me smile. Bronwyn Sell, in the New Zealand Herald, also listed Catcher in the Rye along with Generation Kill, Jarhead, Generation X and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart under the general heading: You'll love it if you liked… and Goodreads reviewer Amanda said, “Billy Lynn reminds me of Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), with the twist that you actually want to be friends with Billy Lynn.”

Personally I liked it. I may never want to read another novel about the Iraq War or American foreign policy or maybe even America ever again but if you are going to read one then this is not a bad read. Fountain can most definitely string a sentence together. Oh, and if salty language bothers you just forget it:

Life in the Army is miserable that way. You fuck up, they scream at you, you fuck up some more and they scream some more, but underlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained fuckups looms the ever-present prospect of the life-fucking fuckup, a fuckup so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption.

You can read an excerpt here.


Ben FountainI feel something of an affinity with Ben Fountain. His first book was published when he was forty-eight which was how old I was when my first one came out; he’s now the same age as me, fifty-three, and his third novel has just been published. People are calling it his debut but he actually finished two novels before this; the first he realised wasn’t good enough and so despite having spent four years slogging away at it he put it in a drawer and then devoted ten years working on his second, The Texas Itch, which he was unable to get published even after the success of his short story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, collecting stories written between 1999 and 2005, which bagged him the PEN/Hemingway award for a distinguished first book of fiction.

In a 2008 article in The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell declared him a late-blooming genius. The whole article is worth reading because of what it says about both Fountain and his wife whose selflessness (and faith in her husband) enabled him to quit his job to write fulltime. The article opens:

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

He was thirty. His wife had just been made partner which meant money was not a big issue but money is never not an issue. Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, his short story collection, came eighteen years later. Fountain says:

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never.” She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for Brief Encounters belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

Ben Fountain's fiction has appeared in Harper's magazine, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story, and he has been awarded an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and other honours. He is the fiction editor of Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.


Dave King said...

A lot of fine authors are undervalued, I think, because of their titles.

I absolutely didn't realise that 50 or 60 nationalities fought in the Iraq War. That really made me sit up and take notice.

The paragraph that I shall take away, though, is the Ezra Pound one, not that the info' is all new to me, but, well, maybe it's the context in which it appears.

I'm not great on war books, but this is obvious;y different from most.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was the same, Dave. When I saw this book listed in the Canongate catalogue I probably dismissed it in about three seconds and passed onto the next page. That’s no guarantee they don’t just send me a copy of the off chance that I might just review it—I got one in the post today that I would never have picked in a month of Sundays and I know for a fact I will never read (anything that can be described as a “bonkbuster” stands no chance with me)—but I was pleasantly surprised by Billy Lynn. It was not a quick read either; the writing is dense, many of the sentences long and it requires attention. It is certainly not the book I was expecting.

As for the Pound quote… Yes, very interesting. I’ve always meant to find a copy of The ABC of Reading. Still plan to.

Robert Davidson said...

Can we stop with the comparisons already? The man has written an excellent book dealing with an artificial society, an unpopular war, and a questionable sport; and done it with a thoroughly likeable hero and support cast. My hat is off. My only slightly-off-the-topic question is: How did all this go down in the legal community of Dallas (and elsewhere)? They would be at the forefront of those skewered.

Jim Murdoch said...

It wasn’t me that compared the book to Catch-22, Robert; I was simply responding. It is hard not to compare especially where an author makes it obvious, as Fountain does, that he is indebted in some way to another author. The danger there is that your readers make too much out of it and it works against you. My latest novel Milligan and Murphy is heavily influenced by the writings of Samuel Beckett, especially Mercier and Camier and telling people that up front did me no favours because a lot of people find Beckett hard work and he can be but he can also be very funny. Still that gave a few people all the excuse they needed to turn down the offer of a review copy because they could say they didn’t feel up to the task. Now I just tell people it’s a funny book about two Irish layabouts.

As for what the Dallas community thought about the book, I found no evidence in my researches that there was any furore. If feathers were ruffled it wasn’t for long. And you are right, this is an excellent book. I still think it’s longer than it needs to be to make its point and that by labouring it the book loses some of its power but the simple fact is that this bloke can write.

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