Fountain’s novel, which Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) blurbs as being “the Catch-22 of the Iraq War,” chronicles one day in the life of Billy Lynn, a war hero on a glorified two-week “Victory Tour” throughout the United States with his unit (the Bravos) before having to re-deploy with his unit back to Iraq. On this particular day of the novel, the Bravos are treated to a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboy’s football game. A spiffed-out white luxury SUV takes drives them. As they approach their destination, Billy sits “watching the stadium swell outside his window to Death Star proportions.”
What makes the Bravo unit so special is that, while in Iraq, a video of the Bravos engaging in a daring and deadly fire fight has gone viral. Overnight, they become national heroes, a symbol of hope during the worst days of the Iraq war. To shore up political support for the war, the Bush Administration brings the heroes stateside to parade them around the country as if they were show ponies. People come up to the Bravos expressing gratitude but, knowing that they’ll be shipped back to Iraq as soon as the Victory Tour concludes, the Bravos quickly surmise how hollow these shows of support are.
I couldn’t help but think of Michael Jackson each time the phrase popped up in Fountain’s novel. Yes, I’m aware that the reference dates me terribly, but it made for an even more ridiculous reading experience.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk just sizzles with dry black humor. The verve of Fountain’s voice is incredible. As they pull into the stadium parking lot, their tricked-out SUV passes over a speedbump
“Shit,” someone murmurs, a speed bump in the silence—their first burst of enthusiasm on sighting the stadium has flatlined into verbal arrest... Bravo doesn’t do so well with silence anyway. Guff and bullshit are more their working style, but the spell of introspective dread concludes with the appearance of a large, carefully rendered homemade sign affixed to a roadside utility pole. STOP ANAL RAPE IN IRAQ! the sign reads, below which someone has scrawled, heavens to betsey. Bravo howls.
Where Fountain excels most is in juxtaposing the immense wealth of the Dallas Cowboys with the Bravos’ own shabby circumstances. Though Billy Lynn is a lifelong Cowboys fan who grew up in a town “a mere eighty miles west…[of] fabled Texas Stadium,” he has never actually seen it “save through the expurgating medium of TV.” For all his proximity, he might as well have grown up in a separate country.
When the Cowboys’ owner invites the Bravos into his private stadium suite to watch part of the game, Billy is overtaken by the suite’s “blue carpet, the blue furnishings with silver accents, giant flat-screen TVs implanted in every wall, two bars, hot and cold buffets, white-jacketed waiters… [the] steep-pitched bank of stadium seats, rows of upholstered chairs stair-stepping down to the glassed-in front and its postcard view of the playing field.”
He’s never been in the proximity of so many wealthy people before.
“The money vibe can be felt at once, a faint hum, a kind of menthol tingling of the lips. Billy wonders if wealth can be caught like a germ, just by virtue of sheer proximity.”
As Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote,
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”
The wealthy are like different creatures from Billy. By the end of the novel, the wealthiest of the pack will attempt to screw over the Bravos for ownership of the only real asset of monetary value that the Bravos possess: the story of their heroism.
I was sitting in this sunny, tranquil Virginia Tech stadium reading Fountain’s book when I came across the most remarkable passage, made all the more poignant for me because of where I was at the time. About mid-way through the novel, the Cowboys’ equipment manager gives Billy a tour of the team’s equipment room.
They pause at neatly racked jerseys in home and away colors. [The equipment manager] points out the spandex panels to ensure tight fit, the extra-long tails with spandex hems, the moisture-wicking qualities of the space-age fabric. Billy pulls out number 78 and holds it up by the hanger; they share a chuckle over its impossible size, enough fabric to clothe an average family of four. Then it’s on to the shoes, an entire section of wall shelved floor to ceiling with shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, and nothing but more shoes….
… Each player, [the equipment manager continues], requires three kinds of Astroturf treads, one for dry, one for damp, and one for wet conditions, plus a molded-form shoe with fixed cleats for grass, plus another grass shoe with interchangeable cleats, four kinds of cleat styles for all different weathers. Then to the shoulder pads stacked on steam tables, stack upon stack and row upon row like bones in an Old World catacomb. Twelve styles, which is to say a style for each position, four sizes per style plus flak-jacket extensions plus infinite customizations possible…
Chewing gum, we provide five flavors for the guys, you’re looking at twenty twenty-five hundred-count boxes right there. Velcro strips and tags here, to keep your gear snug and tight, you don’t want to be giving the enemy any handles to grab. Hip, thigh, and knee pads sorted by style, size, and thickness. Tact gloves for receivers, padded gloves for linemen. Orthopedic insoles, all sizes. Baseball caps. Knit caps. Electric drills for changing out cleats. Talcum powder. Sunscreen. Smelling salts. Twenty-two different kinds of medical tapes. Gels, creams, ointments, antibacterials, and antifungals. Coolers. Cartons of powdered Gatorade.
Three full pages are given to this catalog of equipment. It just boggled my mind.
While reading this, Virginia Tech football players smashed into each other, practicing, the clack of their shoulder pads audible even at the distance of the exalted outdoor club seats in which my son and I sat. Although college players might not have the same chewing gum options as pro players, the supplies necessary to sustain a college football team throughout the season would be just as exhaustive.
I kept imagining some local Virginia Tech employee showing off the contents of whatever equipment room lay in the bowels of Lane Stadium. I imagined the employee rattling off a list of different kinds of padding, the jock straps and chin straps housed within his hangar-sized equipment room. I imagined him unfurling the extra jerseys, tossing around excess helmets and kicking tees.
And I thought of Jay Gatsby, how jubilantly he showed off his wardrobe for Daisy Buchanon in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table with many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.
The joyful excess of it all, huh?
Left unstated in Fountain’s novel is mention of how ill-equipped U.S. soldiers were in the Iraqi war. As the Iraqi insurgency heated up in 2003, nearly one-quarter of U.S. troops serving in that country did not have adequate bullet-proof flak jackets. Soldiers were vulnerable to IED attacks because their Humvees had no body armor. In many cases, the soldiers’ parents were responsible for properly equipping their children—that’s right: the media was rife with stories of how our soldiers were so ill-equipped that their parents took up collections to pay for their children’s flak jackets and their vehicles’ body armor.
Addendum: I’ve thought a lot about Ben Fountain’s novel in recent days. And I've thought a lot about the Bush-era wars that gave rise to Fountain's novel. Last week, while driving to Memphis, I stopped off at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville and took in a pair of war-related exhibits: Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) and Steve Mumford’s War Journals. Earlier this week, my friend and former professor Ed Falco posted a Facebook comments about his own appreciation of Fountain’s novel. I want to write more about this next week, so please bear with me.
Addendum II: I had a fantastic time in Memphis last week! Along with Anders Carlson-Wee (here’s “Riding the Owl’s Eye,” one of the great poems he read), Jill Talbot, and Abraham Smith (check out this video of his 2012 Alabama Book Fair reading), I read at The Pinch’s spring release party. The story that I read from ("The Last American Tiger") focused on the surreal, unseemly aspects of American excess. Many people were kind enough to tell me they enjoyed the reading, but the best part of the evening was just meeting and talking with so many University of Memphis MFA people. I owe thanks to many people, especially Kristen Iversen, Chris Moyer, Andy Ross, and Ruth Baumann. Thank you!