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June 11, 2013

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

by Anne Paddock

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up , and sometimes die.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a book whose title so perfectly resonates reality that most readers will come to think they are reading a work of non-fiction.  Written by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk  is both the story of Billy Lynn and a reflection of American culture.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, Bush is President and the Iraq war is well underway when the army decides to bring a squadron of eight young men collectively referred to as Bravo back to the US for a two-week media tour after Time magazine does a cover story on the heroics these men undertook the month before on the banks of Al-Ansaker Canal to save one of their sergeants who had been captured and was being dragged away by the insurgents.

Led by 19-year old Billy Lynn, the Bravo group underwent 3 minutes and 43 seconds of high-intensity warfare, all of which was captured by a FOX camera crew that happened to be with the soldiers that day. Although the sergeant died, Billy Lynn and his squadron are hailed for being heroes that saved the day because the sergeant would have had a more horrific death at the hands of his captors. For Billy, October 23rd was the worst day of his life and “he’s beginning to understand he will spend the rest of his life trying to figure it out” but for Americans, safely ensconced away from the battlefield in cities like Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Pittsburgh, October 23rd was a highpoint in the “war against terror” that should be glorified and honored.

billy lynnsMost of the story takes place at Texas Stadium on a national holiday when most Americans give thanks and watch professional football. The Dallas Cowboys are playing the Chicago Bears and Beyoncé is performing at half-time. People are drinking beer, partying in the boxes, complaining about the cold, and enjoying their safe lives.

The Bravo squad is being wined, dined, and paraded in front of thousands in the stadium and millions watching on television. The irony isn’t lost on Bravo who “can laugh and feel somewhat superior because they know they are being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, than of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed. Every Bravo is a PhD in the art and science of duress.”

Billy Lynn grew up in Stovall, Texas 80 miles west of the Texas Stadium, although he never attended a football game in his youth. He became a soldier at the age of eighteen, “a private in the infantry, the lowest of the low” when he enlisted to avoid a felony charge after he trashed his sister’s fiance’s car with a crowbar because the boyfriend broke up with his sister after she had a car accident that left her with multiple broken bones, and more than 230 stitches on her face and body.  With his enlistment, the DA agreed to drop the charges down to criminal mischief so Billy headed off to Fort Hood where he joined his infantry group and met a group of men who would forever change his life and his understanding of the world.

People are falling all over Bravo. “We appreciate, they say, their voices throbbing like a lover’s. Sometimes they come right out and say it, We Love You. We are so grateful. We cherish and bless. We pray, hope, honor-respect-love-and revere and they do, in the act of speaking they  experience the mighty words , these verbal arabesques that spark and snap in Billy’s ears like bugs impacting an electric bug snapper.” Slowly, Billy comes to understand the weirdness of the day, of being honored for the worst day of his life, but what is most compelling about Billy’s actualization process is how torn he is between loyalty for his fellow soldiers and the deep resentment he has for being trapped into going to Iraq to fight a war that won’t be won while most Americans stay on US soil enjoying the American lifestyle, which is no more apparent than at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day.

Billy remembers football from a child’s perspective – a fun sport

…and if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of “play,” and then there are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other.

Bravo is given a tour of the Texas Stadium facilities, meets the flamboyant owner of the team, the coaches, the cheerleaders and even the players who “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!” But, that is not to be because the football players are needed to keep the millions of dollars flowing into the pockets of the lucky bastards who make money off a game that has turned into an entertainment giant.

The reader sees the day through the eyes of a 19-year old trash talking teen who can vote and die for his country, but who can’t walk into a bar and buy a drink. Early in the book, the story seems more to be about the thoughts and experiences of young men who are preoccupied with sex, alcohol, and money, for they all hope to sell their story for movie rights. But, as the book progresses, the story deepens and shows the reader a side of American culture that most people wouldn’t be proud of. Billy Lynn has an encounter with a cheerleader and faces a dilemma in which he has to make a choice. It’s not the choice of whether or not to risk his life to save a fellow soldier, but it is a choice that will tear him apart inside. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a book I initially struggled though because trash talking testosterone charged men’s thoughts don’t provoke my curiosity but I stuck with the story primarily because the novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012 leading me to believe there had to be more to the story than what it seemed like the first 80 pages.  There most certainly is.

Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that’s how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires. Mortal feat is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point, and at this moment he feels so sorry for himself that he could break right down and cry.

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