I was a huge fan of Ben Fountain's short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories (P.S.), so I was eagerly anticipating his first novel. The novel focuses on one of the author's favorite themes - innocents serving as the pawns for power players in the world of politics. Here the focus in on Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier who, along with his fellow soldiers in the Bravo squadron, become heroes in the Iraq War. Because their battle with Iraqi insurgents was captured on film and shown repeatedly on Fox TV, they become celebrities for people trying to justify a questionable war. They come home to the United States for a two-week Victory Tour, and the novel occurs entirely on the final day of the tour when they are the showcased guests at a Dallas Cowboys football game against the Chicago Bears. Fountain is an immensely gifted writer. The writing on every page is dazzling, and his gift at description, character building and lyricism are so jaw-droppingly good I found myself highlighting section after section until I stopped because I would have highlighted the whole book.
My quibbles with the book are that from the outset you don't have a clear sense of some big thing that Billy wants, and there's no clear adversary preventing him from getting it - and without those definite desires and obstacles to them, it's not the kind of book you can't wait to get back to, as you're reading, to see if the character will be able to find a way to reach his goals. The Bravo soldiers will have to go back to the war, and while Billy's sister begs him not to and tries to introduce him to people who could spirit him away, it isn't until the end of the book that Billy starts to give that option any serious consideration. For much of the book he seems to accept his return as a given.
The one dream the Bravo soliders collectively have is to make a lot of money from a movie made about their exploits because a Hollywood producer has bought the rights to their lives. That producer, Albert, tags along throughout their day at the football game, but at least through the early part of the book he becomes a tad obnoxious and repetitive as he keeps squawking into his cell phone with all the pompous, over-the-top insincerity masked as brutal honesty that has been portrayed so many times before in books, movies and TV shows like Entourage. The one funny bit here is that the movie deal starts to get some traction when Hillary Swank becomes interested in the story, on the condition that Billy's character become a female hero for the film, but the references to Swank's interest get so repetitive they do start to border on the monotonous. The only real adversary here - and a very thin one - is Norm Ogelsby, the team owner, who's an imitation of the real egomaniac, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys. But the real tension with him doesn't come until the end of the book when he becomes interested in starting a film company to make the movie himself and becomes a hard-nosed negotiator with Albert and the soldiers. Of course, the main adversary here, would be the Bush Administration for intiating a war on the false pretense of getting rid of Saddam's WMDs, but those adversaries loom far in the background here.
The other want Billy has is a relationship with one of the Cowboy cheerleaders, who makes out with him in a hidden corner during a photo shoot with the soldiers. Billy is a virgin, and his instant attraction to an immature cheerleader, is nothing more than the most obvious dreamy, boyhood urge. What the novel does very well is show what little interest people have in actually getting to know the soldiers, while they're fawning all over them, telling them they are heroes and expressing gratitude for their service. It's interesting that the soldiers are trying to get a movie made about themselves because for the hordes of people they meet - the powerful, the famous, and the everyday folk - what the soldiers mostly serve as is a blank screen upon which people can project all their own feelings about the war and how the United States should be exacting revenge in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the best and funniest scenes occurs in a pre-game exchange with the Cowboys' secondary. When the soldiers visit the locker room, most of the players stare off blankly, blocking out the routine interruptions in their pre-game rituals. But the defensive backs draw Billy in, eager for details of what guns Billy uses and taking sadistic pleasure in hearing gory details of his battles, as they entertain fantasies of joining up with the soldiers for a two-week tour in which they could wreak some havoc without having to leave their high-paying jobs permanently.
The soldiers know they're being used by the government as a propaganda machine, and they're just interested in making some money off the entire P.R. operation. The way that Fountain so effectively portrays the sarcastic, ball-busting, but I've got your back camaraderie of the soldiers is one of the highlights of the book. I do wish we'd had a clearer description of the battle that made the soldiers famous, but a description of what happened is delayed in the early portion of the book, and when it comes later, it's often in bits and pieces. But there is a very powerful description of the one fatality of that fight dying in Billy's arms and the impact that has on Billy's thought patterns.
I feel a little silly offering so many critiques of a book that's full of so many brilliant sentences, descriptions and observations. Just one section -- the prolonged description of the tour the soldiers get of the equipment room by the equipment handler - could serve as a showcase of how prodigiously talented Fountain is. The catalogue of the endless variety of gear the team requires is so eye-opening and so humorously told, you can't believe that a writer could make that subject so fascinating.
I just wish I could have along the way rooted along with Billy for something bigger than getting money from a smarmy movie producer or a sexual romp with a drop-dread gorgeous cheerleader. And while the prospect of death hangs over Billy constantly as he contemplates returning to Iraq, the brutality of that war only comes through in a few brief passages, such as the death scene noted above and another in which Billy recalls the horror of what happens to the human body when it's shot at in close range with a high-powered weapon. In conclusion, I suppose, it was a book I did enjoy and I still look forward to Fountain's next work, but I think he fell short of making this a classic on the level of Catch 22, to which I know it has been compared.(If Billy had an urge as compelling as Yossarian's desire to avoid another combat mission, and as worthy an adversary as the crazy bureaucracy that blocked Y from his goal, this book might have had the same impact for me as that classic.) Another current novel in this vein of comic/satirical (with touches of tragedy) looks at the plight of Iraqi soldiers is Last One In (P.S.) by Nicholas Kulish, which didn't get the attention it deserved. It too offers a great look at the war from the perspective of the foot soldiers, although in this case that perspective is filtered through a worefully unprepared gossip writer, who by virtue of sharing a name with a more experienced but indisposed newspapersman, ends up embedding with them as a reporter.