Billy Lynn, Part 2: This Time it’s Personal

24Dec12

Based on many recommendations and driven by my basic desire to be fair, I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. If you read my blog post from a couple of weeks ago (http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2012/12/06/billy-lynns-bogus-journey/), you’ll recall that I was a little peeved at what I read and heard about the book’s portrayal of our troops. I felt that the story was unrealistic and the author, Ben Fountain, depicted our troops as morons.

I did my best to be openminded as I read it. I was told that I would probably feel differently about the book after I read it. So I finished it, and reached some conclusions:

First, nothing in the book violates the laws of physics. That’s good. Just about everything in the story [infantry sergeant pins a private to the wall and kisses him lovingly on the mouth after a firefight/Billy almost has sex with a Cowboys cheerleader in the stadium during the game/stadium cops treat the soldiers like crap/fans make fun of the troops and nearly provoke a fight/troops are forced to participate in the Destiny’s Child halftime show – and get all freaked out from PTSD!] is severely unrealistic, but, I suppose, not impossible.

Second, I was wrong when I said the soldiers were portrayed as morons. They’re not – exactly – morons. Losers with no self control is a better description.

Please keep in mind that none of what follows is a criticism of Fountain’s writing. The man is a good writer, and his nearly twenty years of dedication and perseverance show. Despite the fact that I had to hold my nose at the subject matter, I actually enjoyed parts of it and finished it in about a day and a half. I even laughed out loud at one line of dialogue where the squad leader, Sergeant Dime, messes with a Hispanic soldier about the Battle of the Alamo.

Unfortunately, other than that and a few other lines, Fountain displays almost no understanding of our troops. I was told by more than one reviewer that Fountain shows the troops to be intelligent and fully aware of their situation; unfortunately, this partial list of incidents/descriptions seems to refute that.

-Two soldiers get into a wrestling match on the floor of a gift shop, in their dress uniforms
-Two soldiers get high on marijuana with a waiter at the football stadium just before making a public appearance at the game
- A soldier tells his mother to buy a $100,000 vehicle because he might be part of a movie deal (and of course she buys it, because she’s a dumbass too)
- The entire squad runs around an end zone throwing passes and tackling each other, without permission from the stadium personnel, in their dress uniforms
- The entire squad gets into a fistfight with a crew of roadies in front of 70,000 people, again in their dress uniforms
- A soldier chokes out a fan in front of thousands of people in the bleachers
- A soldier gets high on Valium and sings out loud to passing strangers (in his dress uniform, in the stadium)

And so on. I may be the only person who feels this way, but if I saw a group of soldiers acting like that I would be embarrassed for the Army.

On the other hand, I guess when you assume all soldiers come from the lowest rung of society, you expect or forgive moronic behavior. Once again, I was told that Fountain did not describe soldiers as being low class losers. Then I ran across this passage, describing the backgrounds of soldiers in Billy Lynn’s squad:

“On Holliday’s last visit home before shipping out, his brother told him, I hope you f**king die in Iraq. When Mango was fifteen his father cracked his skull with a wrench, and Mrs. Mango’s comment was, So maybe now you’ll stop pissing your father off. Dime’s grandfather and one of his uncles were suicides. Lake’s mother was an OxyContin addict who’d done time, his father a dealer who ditto. When Crack was eleven years old his mother ran off with the assistant pastor of their church. Shroom, he barely had a family. A-bort’s father had been the deadbeat poster dad for the state of Louisiana, and Syke’s father and brothers blew up their house cooking meth.”

As I mentioned in my previous post about this book, Fountain said, “I don’t doubt that there are plenty of current and former soldiers who’ve read a couple of pages and chucked it aside in disgust or boredom.” When I read the passage about the soldiers’ backgrounds, coming soon after Billy Lynn’s “Go to prison or join the Army” story, I almost threw the book aside in disgust. If I needed confirmation that Fountain portrayed soldiers as the “bottom third percentile” (he does in fact use that line toward the end of the book), I believe I’ve found it. And it is an insult.

Before anyone says it; yes, there are many soldiers who come from rough backgrounds. But it’s not all of us. There are actually people in the military from wealthy families, who have no criminal background, who didn’t grow up around violence, who had every opportunity in the world to do what they wanted and chose to serve. The military is a true melting pot. An honest portrayal of soldiers would show the blend of backgrounds, not highlight only those with tragic childhoods. I’m sure Fountain would scoff at a fictional squad of soldiers who are all saints determined to enter the priesthood, but his version of our troops is just the other side of that same unrealistic coin.

My instinct tells me that Fountain did in fact speak to a few soldiers about the Army and Iraq, and learned a few bits and pieces of truth from them. But when they left information gaps, Fountain simply filled those gaps with old Vietnam stereotypes (see the references to choosing prison or the Army, casual drug use and dead-end childhoods). While reading this book, my head was often filled with the immortal Paul Hardcastle’s words, “In World War Two the average age of the combat soldier was twenty-six. In Vietnam he was nineteen.” I was reminded of this every time Fountain reminded the reader that poor Billy Lynn was only “nuh-nuh nuh-nuh nineteen!” And when Billy’s sister begs him to desert the Army and allow an anti-war group to hide him.

I guess the whole deserting the Army thing is realistic. After all, just as the Vietnam War produced thousands of draft-dodgers and deserters, the Iraq War produced a handful of celebrated cowards who refused to honor contracts they voluntarily signed. Sure. It’s the same thing. And your average soldier would seriously consider becoming a deserter, just like Billy Lynn did. All of us draftees truly hate the Army and the war, and just want to escape, right? Actually we’re volunteers, and many of us went to great lengths to have an opportunity to serve in combat. But let’s just ignore that irritating little truth.

I should point out that not all the flaws in Fountain’s description of our troops relate to Vietnam stereotypes. He did get ambitious and reach all the way back to World War II at one point. This bit of nostalgia arises as Billy casually mentions that before going to Iraq, his unit was briefed that they should all expect to die.

Folks, there are certain things we say about survival in the military, such as we don’t train to die, don’t ever give up, and nobody’s dead until the medic says he’s dead. Maybe certain individuals get fatalistic, and the whole “they told us we’d die” thingy sounds really cool and ominous and all, but it’s just stupid. Any commander who said that to his troops would/should be kicked out of the Army in disgrace. It’s one thing to acknowledge a hard reality, that a unit should expect casualties. It’s another thing to tell your Joes you expect them to die. That’s just wrong. But on the plus side, we know that Fountain watched that neat-o scene from Band of Brothers where the crazy lieutenant tells a soldier he should consider himself dead already.

To be fair, Fountain doesn’t only insult and caricaturize soldiers. He shares the wealth with many other groups as well. In this story,

- Conservatives are IDIOTS
- Wealthy people are IDIOTS
- The general public is made of IDIOTS
- People who watch Fox News are IDIOTS (Billy’s father, perhaps the most odious character in the book, does nothing but watch Fox News from his wheelchair)
- Devout Christians are IDIOTS
- NFL players and fans are IDIOTS

Many fans of Ben Fountain probably read that list and said, “Yeah, that’s all true” (which sort of proves the point I’m about to make). I don’t want to argue about all of it, but the last two points deserve some elaboration. I’m agnostic, no fan of religion. But throughout my life I have known and trusted a great many people who were devout Christians, Jews or Muslims. I don’t believe for a second that having faith requires low intelligence, or that it’s a simplistic mindset. While I can argue logic against faith, I understand why people have faith and how important it is to them. In Fountain’s book, I don’t recall a single reference to faith that wasn’t a backhanded insult.

Regarding the depiction of the NFL, I have to admit something: I liked it. I’ve never been a football fan, and never understood why athletes get paid such ridiculous amounts of money for tossing a ball around. Whenever I see two pro teams playing on TV, I hope they both lose (although I do like the Texans, mostly because they’re underdogs and thus far the players aren’t running around acting like spoiled bozos). So when Fountain has three football players in the locker room ask if they can go to Iraq for three weeks to “help”, then get angry when Billy tells them they’d have to join the Army (“We got jobs, this here our job, how you think we gonna quit our job and go join some nigga’s army? Fah like what, three years?”), I think it’s funny and real. It’s probably not real, it’s a caricature, it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of NFL players. But I like it BECAUSE I’M ALREADY PREJUDICED AGAINST THEM.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s a phenomenon I’ve already identified.

1) Reader has a biased, unrealistic view of a certain, anonymous group of people. [cough **soldiers!**cough]
2) Reader reads Billy Lynn and sees a caricature that confirms his biased, unrealistic view.
3) Reader thinks, “Gee, this book is so real!”

I know I’m biased against pro athletes. I understand I have a skewed view of the NFL. Therefore, I won’t write a review saying, “Fountain captured the football players perfectly”. He didn’t. Instead, he played to my prejudices. He preached to the choir. Aside from all the other complaints I have about unbelievable nonsense in this book, Fountain’s habit of preaching to his choir bothered me the most.

To sum things up: If you secretly think our troops are losers but won’t admit it except to your liberal friends, are anti-bush, anti-war, anti-religion, and feel the bulk of America’s population is made of morons who are far beneath you, you will love this book. You’re Fountain’s choir, and this book was written for you. But if you have a true, multi-dimensional view of our troops, if you see the flaws of our war effort but still support the cause, if you think this is a pretty damn good country all around, then don’t bother with this book. Because it’ll just make you angry.



7 Responses to “Billy Lynn, Part 2: This Time it’s Personal”

  1. I’ve tried to make myself read this book, but just can’t.

  2. Haha….well, you gave it a try and have certainly explained your criticism. I can’t fault you even if I disagree – though I agree about the dress uniforms and the desertion plot being a little too much.

    Sorry you didn’t like it…Merry Christmas…

    • Merry Christmas to you too, Nathan. I promise not to hold your praise of the book against you :). Tonight I read The Yellow Birds, and holy cow I’ll have a lot to say about that one.

      Chris

  3. 6 marc

    I didn’t get a chance to read the book yet but I never trust anyone who betrays the world as stupid. The people who say the public is stupid are most likely just as smart as everyone else. They fell superior to everyone but their group, friends, or peers. It has the same distinctiveness as racism, if you don’t believe me; think about what would happen if all the liberals turned red. When I meet people like that it almost always points to a misunderstanding of the world and American culture it’s self.

    • Marc,

      I don’t trust anyone who thinks they’re the only voice of reason in a sea of stupidity either. And I do see a lot of misunderstanding of who we (society/soldiers) are.

      Chris


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