The main thing that Googling will tell you about Ben Fountain is that he’s – depending on your point of view – a slow learner, a model of staying power and resilience, a maniacal perfectionist, or a living vindication of underachieving literary househusbands. That’s because the journalistic handle on him, established by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker piece, is that he wrote fiction full-time for 18 years before publishing his first book. In 1988, aged 30, he left a job as a property lawyer in Dallas, Texas, after his wife had their first child and was made a partner in her law firm. He sold a few stories, went on research trips to Haiti, wrote a novel he wasn’t pleased with, picked the kids up every day, got ditched by his agent, lost and recovered his confidence, and in 2006 published Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, a story collection, to great acclaim. Being cast as a Cézanne-like late-blooming genius in Gladwell’s piece two years later wasn’t the last of his professional tribulations. Soon after the article was published his editor talked him into jettisoning a novel he’d worked on for six years. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, his first published novel, is the third he’s written.
Fountain seems resigned to being seen as the slowest pen in the South so long as it’s understood that he isn’t a listless procrastinator. Interviewers tend to walk away with stories of hair-raising numbers of drafts: five hundred pages’ worth, he told Gladwell, for the 31-page story that opens Brief Encounters. Yet it’s clear from that book that he isn’t in thrall to a vision of arid perfection. The chief sign that the stories have been worked over extensively is that there’s little fat on them, though the muscular plotting – he doesn’t go in for mood pieces – isn’t ludicrously pumped up. There’s one dark, archly witty historical fable, set in late imperial Vienna, and two stories that touch on life in the US. But the main emphasis falls on morally charged transactions in the developing world, often involving Americans of varying levels of insight and idealism: an ornithologist kidnapped by a Farc-like outfit in Colombia, a boozy Texan golf pro in Burma, a depressed aid worker in Sierra Leone. Half of the book deals with Haiti, which the title story’s narrator visits throughout the 1990s, ‘convinced that I’d found ground zero for all the stupidity, waste and horror inflicted on the hemisphere since Columbus and the Spaniards set up shop’.
One side-benefit of Fountain’s long apprenticeship is that his 1970s-vintage literary models – among them Robert Stone, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer in Vietnam-era reportage mode – turned out to be pretty useful for a writer hitting his stride at the start of the 21st century. His main adjustments concern mood. For the pill-popping nerviness of Didion and Stone’s Americans abroad, he substitutes a belated sense of globalised wrongness, a rueful lack of surprise at the way – as the ornithologist reflects – ‘certain systems functioned best when they denied the existence of adverse realities.’ (The character thinks this while watching a Wall Street bigshot, sent over by the State Department, lecture the guerrilla leadership on ‘the importance of strong ratings from Moody’s bond-risk service’.) Most of the stories arrive at dramatic endings but, thanks to deftly administered ironic turns, aren’t too tidy. Fountain is careful not to let the locations become labelled diagrams of historical forces or exotic backdrops for American self-exploration. And the narrative voice can be funny and gossipy as well as pained. In ‘Asian Tiger’, the golf pro, who gets a close-up view of money laundering and counterinsurgency, finds time to be dismayed by the Burmese generals’ blatant cheating on the green,
penny-ante stuff that should have been beneath their dignity as national leaders, though with time Sonny began to link … political power and the most banal sort of personality. He thought of the pro-am round he’d played years ago with George Walker Bush, back in the days when the future president was merely the affable front man for the Texas Rangers. ‘You know how it is with those Latin players,’ the young Bush told Sonny with his trademark smirk. ‘The first thing they do when they get that big contract, they go out and buy their wives a new set of titties.’
In another story, Fountain describes 1960s Southern hairdos as looking like ‘heavily shellacked constructions of meringue’, and writes of ‘that ripe, combustible blend of sentimentality and viciousness so vital to the traditions of the moneyed Southern male’.
It’s easy to imagine that North Dallas in the Bush years would offer much food for thought to a writer with an interest in troubling goings-on overseas. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a heroically ambitious overview of the Global War on Terror’s home front, is filled with similarly Texas-insiderish skewerings. Many are self-inflicted by minor characters. ‘I’ll say this for nina leven,’ one of them tells Billy, a 19-year-old soldier who’s been whisked back from Iraq for a hastily organised Victory Tour in November 2004, ‘it shut the feminists up.’ ‘If it watten for yall,’ another says, ‘God knows what’d be going down here, I guess we’d all be praying to Allah and wearing towels on our heads.’ Often Billy stops listening and hears only words of the kind that embarrass Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, the kind that Stephen Dedalus fears in Ulysses. ‘So proud,’ men tell him. ‘So grateful, so honoured. Guardians. Freedoms. Fanatics. TerrRr.’ ‘The war,’ women say, ‘the troops because defending szszszsz among nations szszszsz owl-kay-duzz szszszsz.’ Sometimes Billy zones out entirely and there’s a sprinkling of words on white space: ‘currj’, ‘double y’im dees’, ‘Sod’m’, ‘Eye-rack’, ‘Eaaaar-rock’, ‘soooh-preeeeme sacrifice’ – the concrete poetry of ‘freeman moxy’, as Steve Bell’s Bush used to call it.
Billy gets cornered by these speakers, then passed round excited gatherings ‘like everybody’s favourite bong’, because he and the nine other members of Bravo squad – more properly Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, though they’ve been rebranded – were filmed by an embedded Fox crew during a firefight in which one Bravo was killed and another lost his legs but large numbers of armed insurgents were blown away. Played endlessly on Fox and a hit on YouTube, the footage is what home audiences have been waiting for: no civilians shot up, no Saving Private Jessica-type stage management, certainly no Lynndie England stuff, just the Bravos looking – so they’re told – like action movie heroes. ‘Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, “Yew ARE America.”’ Hence their Victory Tour, through swing states, as it happens, and hence also the presence of Albert Ratner, a producer who’s trying to sell their story to Hollywood. Grieving, frazzled, drunk most of the time, and unable to square their experiences with the way their fans see them, they stagger from motel to mall to television studio. They’ve been encouraged not to mention, in their numerous media appearances, that they’ll soon be flying back to Iraq to serve out the 11 months they still owe.
The novel confines itself to the last day of their Victory Tour. (Apart from a chapter detailing Billy’s visit home, the flashbacks are short and worked patiently into the action.) It being both Thanksgiving and the day after their comrade’s funeral, a big send-off has been devised: an excursion to Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, the richest franchise in American football, to be honoured in the course of a holiday game against the Chicago Bears. This trip to ‘the sheltering womb of all things American – football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens’ – provides as much fear, confusion, hypocrisy and all-round craziness as anyone could wish for. The book’s centrepiece is the game’s half-time show, ‘porn-lite out of its mind on martial dope’, in which the squad is made to march with assorted dancers and drill teams in front of the cameras before ascending a giant stage. It’s a brilliantly realised episode, the soldiers struggling with the brutally mechanical nationalist uplift, the threat of ‘Vietnam-vet crackups’ – there are many fireworks – and the feelings of pitiable personal irrelevance induced by the aura around the show’s star, Beyoncé. Billy’s responses to ‘the ritual torturing of a difficult song’ – the American national anthem – in the executive box, and to the militarised abundance of the Cowboys’ equipment room, are complicated too.
Fountain’s writing is very alert to effects of space and light and to the details that make the stadium a ready-made emblem: its ‘size and lack of humour’, the corrosion and shabbiness offsetting its promise of ‘mass transcendence’, the grudgingness of all but the highest levels of corporate hospitality. (A scene starring the Cowboys’ owner, Norm Oglesby, who seems to be modelled on the real-life owner, Jerry Jones, indicates that we’re expected to know about, and maybe attach some symbolic weight to, the demolition of Texas Stadium in 2010.) Already aware that their semi-celebrity status is a ‘huge floating hologram of context and cue’, Billy and the other Bravos don’t lack for reminders. A well-heeled Dallas matron reflexively one-ups them – ‘Was there a dinner? There wasn’t? That’s a shame’ – while asking about their photo op at the White House, during which Billy had found himself ‘expecting the president to act, well, embarrassed? … But the commander in chief seemed well pleased with the state of things.’ American football stars quiz them greedily about killing, then react with indignant, contemptuous laughter to an invitation to join the fun in the army. Above all, Billy is alarmed by the impersonal way he’s used as an emotional lightning rod by citizens who ‘fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives’:
That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year … they lose it when they enter his personal space. They tremble. They breathe in fitful, stinky huffs. Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio … So scared all the time, and so shamed at being scared through the long dark nights of worry and dread, days of rumour and doubt, years of drift and slowly ossifying angst. You listened and read and watched and it was just, so, obvious, what had to be done, a mental tic of a mantra that became second nature as the war dragged on. Why don’t they just …
Billy grew up in a small town in Texas, the son of a hair metal DJ turned right-wing radio yakker. ‘If there is real knowledge to be had in the Texas public schools he never found it.’ It’s not hard to believe in his intelligence and receptiveness, but Fountain has to work hard to manage the distance between his supposedly limited focal character and supercharged narrator. One solution is a sudden switch to the second person, as above; we hear quite a lot of this sorrowing prophet’s voice, sometimes addressing Americans at large (‘Oh my people’), sometimes addressing Billy. Another is to bring heightened diction down with a colloquial bump, as Fountain does throughout the book (‘if nothing else he seeks the means for verbalising such matters without shitting all over their very real power’). And another is to attribute Billy’s sharply estranged perceptions to his recent experiences in Iraq. Of ‘the wounded, vaguely petulant tone that is the style of political speech these days’, Fountain writes: ‘Billy … never noticed how fake it all is until he’d done time in a combat zone.’ ‘Has the war done this to him,’ Billy wonders, ‘inspired these deeper sensitivities and yearnings of his?’
The novel’s answer is no. Though it flirts with notions of the purifying effects of battle, and with a corresponding contempt for the inanities of civilian life, it tiptoes away from them. It’s true to the character to acknowledge that, in some moods, men like, or like to think of themselves as liking, ‘shooting guns and blowing shit up’ instead of ‘shuffling around like scenery on a bad sitcom’. Yet Fountain often seems to be using such ideas mostly to license dyspeptic crowd scenes, and towards the end of the book he sends the martial-vitalist rhetoric down an ironic plughole along with the less plausible figures thrown up by the plot. These figures include Dime, Bravo squad’s leader, a combat readiness-obsessed drill-sergeant type who’s not so secretly posh and educated and against the war and functions entertainingly as a Bill Murray-like joker; and Faison, a Christian yet very hot cheerleader whom Billy manages to get off with. We’re given to understand that the decent loyalty, wholesome lust and wish not to disappoint that these two draw from Billy are what make him unable to seize a rather cursorily developed chance to escape the war. But the turnaround works less well than similar moves in the short stories and has an air of mopping up.
‘I always try to do too much,’ Fountain has said, and he’s right. When he’s not writing full-dress set-pieces, he’s cramming further themes and observations into the bits where you might expect some downtime. The conscription in all but name of many of the enlisted poor, the speed and nastiness with which former soldiers can be rounded on, the many kinds of mediation brought to bear on the conflict, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, T. Boone Pickens: the novel sets out to dramatise them all – and largely succeeds in doing so – without puncturing the atmosphere of New Journalistic realism. Each chapter is assembled as ferociously tightly as one of Fountain’s stories without seeming self-enclosed; the sentences are expansive and uninhibited and put together with close attention to modulation and register. You might not believe in all the characters all the time but Fountain gets you to believe in the sound on the page. He’s also, for the author of the first big American Iraq War novel, determinedly unsolemn, avoiding a ‘world’s largest metaphor hits iceberg’ effect even when the holiday game ends in humiliation for the Cowboys and everyone except the luckless soldiers slinks home in the rain.
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