Monday, 26 August 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is beautiful, exquisite irony

From The Week of August 19th, 2013

What is a hero? The people admire them, our cultures celebrate them and our literature elevates them to immortality. So it is safe to say that we know a hero when we see one. But if pressed to define the criteria for becoming one, we might offer up very different answers. Some of us might value the unsung heroes who toil quietly at thankless jobs that ensure our safety on a daily basis. Others, meanwhile, might emphasize self-sacrifice, believing that a hero is only a hero if we know of, and are inspired by, his or her actions.

But as difficult as it might be to define a hero, it is even harder to unknot the complex relationship between heroes and the societies that harbor them. For while society hails them, upholds them as objects of valor and achievement, it also devours them, reducing them from human beings, with flaws and tempers, to useful paragons that further society's ends. This is no way to treat anyone, let alone those for whom we have the deepest respect. This Ben Fountain captures in his outstanding novel.

For the men of Bravo Squad, they were just doing their jobs, doing what they were trained to do. But for everyone back in America, the ambush at the Al-Ansakar Canal is a defining moment of the Iraq War. Captured on film and replayed for all to see, this four-minute-long engagement, in which Bravo Squad risks their lives to rescue a convoy trapped by insurgents, is a re-affirmation of what they already know, that American soldiers are the bravest and best the world has to offer. And so, it seems only fitting that the survivors of the ambush, while being patched up, and while grieving for the men they've lost, be flown back to America for a thank-you tour, a whirlwind, whistle-stop affair that sees them shaking hands and smiling for photographs in a dozen major US cities before concluding at that most enduring of American rituals, an NFL game at Texas Stadium where they will be honored at Halftime.

For Billy Lynn, the star of the footage which caught him trying to save the life of his dying friend while continuing to kill the enemy, this is a completely disconcerting experience. A 19-year-old boy from a small, Texas oiltown, he is utterly unprepared to be the center of anyone's attention.. And now there are 70,000 people who want to congratulate him, to tell him what they think about the war, and hail him as the bravest of the brave. He must interact with the rich and the poor, the kind and the venomous, all without doing dishonor to the army that has put him here. Over these few hours, he has to be what America needs him to be, but can he be that when he doesn't even know himself? Cheerleaders and millionaires, footballers and fans and at the end of it a war he must go back to, a war that might never end...

As winningly poignant as it is sharply satirical, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is fiction at its best. Juxtaposing the small lives of the men of Bravo squad against the enormity of the spectacle of an NFL game, Mr. Fountain beautifully captures America's tortured relationship with its heroes, with its superficiality and with its founding mythology. For this is a country built on the idea of freedom, constructed to be welcoming to all those who wish to escape tyranny, that is, nonetheless, engaging in two savage and costly wars that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Rather than deal directly with such a difficult truth, however, the people wrap themselves in the sanctity of their flag, focusing on the deeds of heroic men in order to avoid looking at the price they are all paying in a place that few of them could even find on a map. Never in history have so few been asked to bear the weight of so much for so many and this cultural, economic and experiential divide could not be better represented than it is here.

Beyond its potent cultural critiques, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a wonderful and warm character piece. From its young, virginal protagonist, Lynn, to his friend, Mango, his sergeant, Dime, and the film producer, Albert, who is trying to make their story into a movie, the actors here are complicated, rich and deeply entertaining. Mr. Fountain embraces their flaws, depicting them as young men who both love and hate war, who appreciate and scorn their treatment subsequent to the ambush, and who accept and yet cannot abide the empty platitudes of the rich, entitled men who want to be seen to be doting on them. For all their warrior prowess, these are clearly vulnerable men who would benefit far more from a few days respite than the overstimulated chaos of an NFL spectacular. And this brings us to the author's most trenchant observation.

The culture does not feat heroes for their benefit. They feat them to assuage their own guilt about what the heroes have been forced to do. The culture doesn't care about these boys. If it did, they would ask them what they wanted. They would help them with their care, with their futures. Instead of this substantial and meaningful aid, the heroes get fifteen minutes of unwanted fame while being jerked around by titans of industry with whom they have nothing in common and who seek to only use their momentary celebrity to polish their own egos. It is a display of such profound self-indulgence that would descend to the level of disgusting if it weren't so painfully predictable.

Mr. Fountain has a nimble pen, a sharp eye for cultural critique and a strong sense of injustice and irony, all of which he uses to wonderful effect in one of the best reads in years. (5/5 Stars)

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