What is really going on inside their minds when the soldiers come home? Before they can tell us, the call comes to go back to the Middle East for another long tour.
In North Carolina, such brave soldiers and their families surround us. We try to honor them and show our appreciation for what they do for us. We do it as best we can when we see them in uniform in airports, on the streets, and at halftimes during athletic contests in university stadiums, professional sports arenas, and high school gyms.
But those expressions of appreciation, sincere as they may be, are not nearly enough.
Then there is another question, a haunting one, that is raised by North Carolina native, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke Law graduate Ben Fountain in his new novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” He questions whether these soldier heroes are being used by “the business of war” to win and maintain support for our country’s military actions.
Fountain has won many writing awards. His book of short stories “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” gained widespread critical praise. That book was published in 2006, 18 years after Fountain quit his job with a Dallas law firm and began his writing career. That long struggle for success caught the attention of New Yorker columnist and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who featured Fountain in a 2008 article about late blooming geniuses. He compared Fountain to the artist Cezanne, whose early efforts at painting showed no mark of genius.
Gladwell, first quoting art critic Roger Fry, wrote, “‘such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.’ Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing. This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”
Even though Gladwell and many others recognized Fountain’s “late blooming” genius, he never published a novel until this month.
It was worth the wait. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is already being called “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days” and “the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq War.”
The novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day in Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys football game. Billy Lynn and seven other soldier heroes are there to be honored for their service in Iraq, concluding a two-week cross country tour before they return to the war zone.
The soldiers are put on display in the owner’s box and subjected to wealthy Texas oilman-style patriotic banter that rings discordant. A mega-church preacher Billy met on the tour sends him numerous e-mails in an attempt, Billy comes to believe, to make a connection with him only because the preacher wants to be able to brag about how he is helping a war hero through a religious crisis.
At halftime the soldiers are put on patriotic display in a gaudy show featuring Beyonce and pop group Destiny’s Child, which becomes “a blowup of foreplay aerobics, rocket thrusting, shadow humping…and not a damn thing you [the soldiers] can do about it except stand at attention and get pole-danced in front of forty million people.”
If all this is what America is about, the soldiers are ready to go back to Iraq.
In the words of Dallas Morning News reviewer Bryan Woolley, Fountain has written a “powerful, heartbreaking story of the great gulf between what the country thinks it is and what it is.”