In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass will highlight the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ecco).
On March 28, 2012, the State of Texas executed Jesse Joe Hernandez for the murder of a ten-month-old child. Just before the lethal drugs injected into his body kicked in, Hernandez shouted: “Go Cowboys!” He failed to specify where.
The last word on football and violence has yet to be uttered, though George Will came close. “Football combines two of the worst things in American life,” wrote Will. “It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Ben Fountain throws in a few other toxic ingredients – sex, politics, religion, show business, capitalism, and Texas. Fountain, who lives in Dallas and gave up a career in law in order to write fiction full-time, scored a literary touchdown at age 48 with his first book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, a 2006 story collection that won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Fountain now sets his first novel in Texas Stadium, the gridiron shrine that was demolished in 2010 after being replaced, at a cost of $1.15 billion, by Cowboys Stadium. He describes the legendary arena as “basically a shithole. It’s cold, gritty, drafty, dirty, in general possessed of all the charm of an industrial warehouse where people pee in the corners.” Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk spans one frigid, rainy Thanksgiving Day in which eight members of Bravo Squad are guests of honor at a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. The Bravos, as they are called, are Army grunts who survived a fierce firefight with Iraqi insurgents. The encounter, which lasted three minutes and forty-three seconds, left one comrade dead and another permanently disabled.
Caught on video by Fox News, the skirmish turned the young soldiers – crude, irreverent kids – into American idols, ripe for exploitation by politicians, corporate executives, and other predatory patriots. Yanked out of Iraq, the Bravos are sent on a two-week “Victory Tour” throughout the United States. Their day in Texas Stadium, whose Jumbotron proclaims: “America’s Team Proudly Honors America’s Heroes,” caps a two-week itinerary that included a White House photo op with President George W. Bush and stops in half a dozen cities. After their propaganda mission in Texas, they will return to combat duty in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Bravos are packaged as an antidote to the national malaise caused by “nina leven.” A Hollywood hustler is lining up backers for a movie version of their ordeal, which a Texas tycoon describes as “a story of courage, of hope and optimism, love of freedom, all the convictions that motivated you young men to do what you did. . . .”
But 19-year-old Billy Lynn, the focus of the novel who received a Silver Star for acting out of instinct and fear, is confused by all the attention. “It is sort of weird,” he tells Faison Zorn, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who smites him at first sight. “Being honored for the worst day of your life.” It is through Billy’s virginal eyes and his boozy, migrained brain that we encounter the wretched excess of the Stadium Club buffet; the 3,000 pairs of shoes in the equipment room; and the bloated halftime extravaganza starring Destiny’s Child. In one bravura scene, the Bravos visit the Cowboys’ locker room, where scraggly soldiers and overfed gladiators sniff each other out. “So whas it like?” asks a Cowboy, as Sunday warriors face another kind. Though he barely graduated from high school (and then, after vandalizing the Saab convertible of his sister’s ex-fiancé, chose Iraq over prison), Billy is a perceptive fellow beset with “existential spasms,” “random seizures of futility and pointlessness that make him wonder why it matters how he lives his life.” He also wonders whether to go AWOL, exiting Texas Stadium under the protection of a war resisters group.
Norman Oglesby, by contrast, does not lack for self-assurance. In one of many pungent descriptions that make this book a work to savor, Fountain describes his face as “the ruddled, well-scrubbed pink of an old ketchup stain.” A smarmy jingoist determined to beat all others in football, business, and war, the Cowboys’ owner and impresario is doubtless drawn from Jerry Jones. But, though out-of-state critics have praised Fountain’s gift for rambunctious comic invention, Texas readers will recognize as reportage the bumption and presumption that characterize the people in his novel.
During World War II, the U.S. Army commissioned Frank Capra to create a documentary series explaining Why We Fight. A virtuoso account of the noxious nexus of football, business, and combat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk makes magnificent mischief explaining why we should not.
Reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk:
An interview with Ben Fountain: