The Stakes of the Game: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
It is exactly the quality of making readers feel implicated in the ethically suspect that I admire about Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. On the one hand, we recognize ourselves as the “people,” fans who greet the war heroes:
People could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same. There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.
No doubt even those who rejected the war from the get-go will recognize the urgency Fountain describes, the desperation to be absolved, to “support the troops,” particularly when encountering them face-to-face.
Along with showing us who we already are—everyday citizens of America—Fountain offers his readers a wholly new and unfamiliar role: young soldier. By placing the reader inside the mind of a particularly bright nineteen-year-old vet who has been in and must return to the front line in Iraq, Fountain raises the relevant questions in an appropriately complex way. Instead of Iraq, for all intents and purposes an imaginary place for most of us, the story is set in the Dallas Cowboys’ football arena, a location emblematic of America for many reasons. Here we cover ground both familiar and totally new; through Billy’s eyes, we see as horrific what on another day might be merely banal. In contrasting the ridiculous entertainment that makes up life in the U.S. (football stadium shopping, the football game itself, a Destiny’s Child, patriotic-themed halftime show, complete with rockets and lights that threaten to set off the soldiers’ PTSD) with Billy’s flashbacks to the firefight on the Al-Ansakar canal that killed his buddy, Shroom, and made him a hero, we have little choice but to ask ourselves, Which is real? At the same time, Billy (and thus the reader, too) is asking himself, Is this what I’m fighting for?
Billy is at the Cowboys’ game with his squad, the Bravos, who are on a limited-time-only “Victory Tour” around the U.S., shaking hands and being thanked by the good people of America. The game is the last battle, so to speak, before the soldiers have to head back to war. Albert, a Hollywood producer who wants to sell their story as a movie, accompanies them. Constantly on his cell, name-dropping celebrities who may or may not have expressed interest in the project, Albert is having some difficulty getting the job done. Billy tells us:
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 Bravo’s triumph busts through all that. … 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.
Albert concludes that the Bravos shouldn’t worry because “there’s not a person on the planet who wouldn’t pay to see that movie.” And payment, after all, is what really counts, Billy is beginning to understand, for most of his fellow Americans. The reader might not think to ask, but Fountain makes sure Billy does: If money is supposed to be the motive, what does it mean that he’s putting his life at risk for such an embarrassingly small amount?
Ben Fountain. (Photo by Thorne Anderson)
Albert has all but promised each member of Bravo squad $100,000 in exchange for their story. For most of them, that’s fantastic. They could care less about the movie itself; neither fame nor art matter to them. The other soldiers are goofy, likable guys, but Fountain presents them as less thoughtful than Billy and his lieutenant, Dime. Billy and Dime want the money, too, but they worry about the connotations their story might take on in the hands of Hollywood. A film that offers a “knight in shining armor,” “validation” and “redemption,” Dime and eventually Billy realize, would give the people exactly what they want—catharsis, i.e. a metaphorical way out. Such a movie would allow the audience, if not to support the war, at least to feel proud about it for a little while. This peace of mind is precisely what Schulz claims Fitzgerald’s classic bestows upon its readers: the chance to feel intellectually and ethically engaged with immorality while evading all of that immorality’s ambiguousness, and one’s own role in perpetuating it. But unlike the hypothetical Bravo movie, or Gatsby, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk does not allow its readers such ablution. By tightly associating consumerism—of goods, services, entertainment, stories—with war, Fountain implicates every single one of us.
While readers of literary fiction might be more likely than the average Cowboys fan to oppose war and be critical of the capitalist system that finances and benefits from it, on the other hand, as Schulz points out, people often “criticize precisely what they covet.” While many of us express disgust for McMansions and gas-guzzling cars, we often secretly desire our own possibly—though not always—more sophisticated versions of conspicuous consumption. When faced with something we could never buy in a million years, it’s easy to be moralistic. When faced with an ethically questionable but financially affordable commodity choice, however, things get trickier.
Take, for example, the avenue-long block of tennis shoes I was confronted with on a recent evening. Though I am under the impression that mainstream tennis shoe companies treat their foreign workers notoriously badly, I could not help picking up the beautiful results and, yes, wanting to own a pair or two. While the incredible and unnecessarily vast array of commodity goods was once regular discussion fodder amongst my friends in college, it seems to have fallen off the table as a welcome topic these days (perhaps even in colleges), where daily life consists less of reading philosophy and more of reading Facebook. Put up a picture of your new shoes on Facebook and you’re bound to get a lot of “likes.” Put up any kind of political message whatsoever and the response will be either less positive, or simply nonexistent. When this venue is one of our major forms of conversation, it begins to seem like no one is really talking—or thinking—about the hard stuff anymore; and that makes it easier and easier to feel like we don’t have to, either.
That’s where books like Fountain’s come in: to remind us to question what we’re doing, to stop and think about what have come to seem—almost unbelievably, when put in the proper context—like inevitable truths about daily life. Reading Billy Lynn reminds us that “First World Problems” is not a joke, a meme, or a motion we should we go through like a hand wave, to push away our own complicity in the fact that our inconveniences are often remedied at the expense of worlds and people other than us, or, more often than we would like to acknowledge, of us: the Billy Lynns, and the Billy Lynns’ families, of our very own country.
Despite all of this serious subject matter, though, the really amazing thing is that Billy Lynn is incredibly fun to read. While the tension between the consequences of the commodification of life and the desire to possess commodities is not necessarily a pleasant topic, Fountain’s writing actually does make it enjoyable. His descriptions, language, and dialogue are unique, and often bitterly hilarious. The book is so gratifying, in fact, that the deeper significance doesn’t hit home until the last page has been turned. After that, Billy has to return to war, we to our regular lives. Halftime is over, but there’s some hope that the second half might be different, now that we’ve recalled what, and who, is at stake in the game.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.