Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Lieu of the Super Bowl...

A story leaves me staring straight ahead–speechless. Bewildered, yet enlightened. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is one of those books which could ruin me for awhile. In other words, no other fiction read will have near as much impact to my psyche. Fountain has written a profound narrative certainly with political implications that could easily have turned into a moral fable. But here's the thing. He's written the story so masterfully, I'm  delighted not to have waded through any overt message of righteousness. The genius of Mr. Fountain is how he penned the paradox of doing good, performing cruelties for perceived good, and the all moral complexities that roll along during war–on and off the battlefield.

Billy Lynn, along with his squad called BRAVO, is on temporary leave, touring the US after performing heroics after an insurgent attack in Iraq. With the event caught on video by journalists, the squad finds themselves experiencing celebrity-like limelight. The story mostly takes place at a Dallas Cowboy's football game as BRAVO finds themselves being schmoozed by the owner and courted by a producer who wants to make their movie.

Our protagonist, Billy, is a nineteen-year-old who has been wizened by war, but is tortured by his sense of purpose. He's done great things for his country in the war. And every patriot on the street likes to tell him so, except for his self-absorbed handicapped father. But Billy is haunted by what he hasn't done and what he doesn't know. Like saving his friends. Or caring for his family. Or creating a life for himself after the war. One of Billy's finer moments of clarity comes when he narrows down what he doesn't want to become as he is barraged by questions from reporters at one of the Cowboy events.

...they manage to be incredibly annoying, a middle-aged bunch of mostly big-assed white guys dressed in boring-as-hell business casual, such a sad-fuck sampling of civilian bio-matter that for a moment Billy is actually glad for the war, hell yes, so much better to be out there shooting guns and blowing shit up than shuffling around like scenery on a bad sitcom. God knows the war sucks, but he sees no great appeal in these tepid peacetime lives... 

Mortality is an obvious result of war. Billy's own mortality presses him to consider what he could miss–love being the obvious issue before him. On the surface, a binge romance with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader draws out a comedic element of the story, with the predictable ooh-boy-ha-ha reactions of Billy's mates once they are on to the situation. But Billy experiences something deeper than an infatuation, reflecting the young man's search for something profound and eternal in his life not spoiled by violence and war. (I won't say much more about the romance to avoid any spoiler alerts.)

Fatherly themes prevail throughout the novel. One particular image in which Billy gives away his autographed football to a wayward kid struck me as a great symbol. What else conveys generosity of spirit than a kid receiving something so exquisite. Billy wasn't just being kind though. He was dutiful. In selecting a kid, he avoided the fancy Nike or Under Armour boy. Billy chose the kid who needed to be chosen–to be given a boost.

All throughout the book, we find paternalist themes and images that stir. In addition to good role models and not-so-good role models, the role of country as protector, mentor and savior even plays into this theme. While the story can't determine a conclusive ending as to how a country can fill these parts of our lives, it certainly explores the question.

I went to see American Sniper the same week I finished this novel. Certainly, I couldn't help but feel sad and troubled about war–nothing abnormal. But the one thing great books and movies do is help us relate and provide perspectives we might not otherwise ever have. And while I have always respected and felt grateful for our military, I know I have been changed. The next time I notice someone in the service, the pit in my stomach will reach a little deeper as I silently extend my newfound empathy.