The Short Version: Specialist Billy Lynn, youngest member of a celebrated Army squad (known as Bravo Company) who engaged in an intense and well-documented firefight in Iraq, experiences a long dark afternoon of the soul on Thanksgiving Day at the Cowboys game.
The Review: That summary doesn’t exactly do the book justice, but then I don’t know quite what does. Nothing I’ve read so far about this book actually prepared me for the experience of reading it. Even the early going of it was not quite preparatory for what would come later. And I don’t mean to say that there are any major twists or shocks or anything – it’s just that suddenly, and rather without warning, I found myself deeply engrossed in one of the most searing examinations of the state of the nation and (perhaps more accurately) the national psyche than I ever remotely anticipated. I mean, it manages to deconstruct American imperialism, exceptionalism, jingoism, consumerism, religious zealotry, obesity, irrationality, and not to mention football – but it never feels like it’s trying. It just says all the things we always wanted to say, simply.
It’s maybe the first book about the Iraq War that I’ve read that hasn’t made me aggravated. Actually, as I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve read any books specifically about the wars in the Middle East… If I have, I suppose I’ve blocked them out somewhat. It’s not unlike the whole “post-9/11” novel thing, I guess. I just don’t particularly want to read fiction that so proudly trumpets itself as such, even though so many novels these days are inescapably influenced by the military events of the first decade of this century. But people were raving about this book from early on, and when it popped up in the Iraq-War-book playoff round of the ToB this year (can’t wait to see how that plays out… please please please let The Yellow Birds not win, I don’t want to read that book at all), I decided to go ahead and take the chance.
This is an Iraq War book, yes. But it’s not about the war. Not really. It’s about the uniquely framed moment of American consciousness that we so precipitously traversed between approximately late 2002 and let’s say late 2008. Problems, of course, continued after that and we’re still on rocky ground… but the Bush II years were just damn dodgy, we’ve all got to admit that and move on. And that’s where we are – approximately 2005, right in the thick of it, by my sense of the thing. There’s a reference to the Cowboys having lost Emmitt Smith and a fictionalized version of T. Boone Pickens who Billy recognizes as “Mr. Swift Boat himself” during a pre-game cocktail reception, so we’re definitely post-election-2004. But anyway, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that people were effectively as crazy at that point as I (then a high-schooler) seemed to think. And Fountain does a great job at pegging all of the crazy – not just the Republicans, not just the guns&Jesus nuts, but he manages to take a look at everyone and wonder just what the fuck was going on in this country.
Billy, the perhaps biggest hero of this hero squad, is 19 years old. 19. Made a bit of a bad decision in high school in order to defend his older sister’s honor and so the Army was the best choice for him. A particularly poignant moment between Billy and said sister comes when she tries to convince him not to go back (they’re being redeployed immediately after their “Victory Tour” is over), telling him that he wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for her and he just sort of shrugs that off, not saying that it’s untrue… but also not saying that it is true. It’s just what happened and probably where he might’ve ended up anyway so why get upset about it?
But really, Billy is the young man who’s grown up far beyond his years out of necessity. He’s nineteen – a fact that surprises just about everyone in the book and that, also, continually surprises the reader. But he’s been through so much that how could he NOT be more mature than he’s perhaps meant to be? As he drinks himself into a steady buzz, bantering with his friends on the squad and being subjected to the constant chatter of grateful Americans around him, his mind wanders to the big questions of whether it’s all worth it – and where better to question it all than Texas Stadium on the day of the Thanksgiving game? “America’s Team” my ass – sorry, you can’t pick the team you’re born with and I’m an Eagles fan – but the Cowboys of the late 90s/early 2000s also represent a sort of nadir of American Exceptionalism. When Billy and his best friend go into the highest-end merch shop, Fountain doesn’t even need to try for satire: he just lets them go for it. The ridiculousness of the merchandise and the realization that people pay money for this stuff is all you need and Fountain just nails it. Ditto to the scenes where Bravo Company’s Hollywood liaison/agent (he’s trying to make a movie deal happen) tries to sell them on how their movie is going to get made – including, in a terrific running gag, getting Hilary Swank to play the lead – and the scenes with the Cowboys’ owner. It’s all so earnest, what these people are doing and saying, but our hero sees… if not through it, at least he’s sees how strange it all is.
The smartest coup in the book is Fountain’s use of typography, cunning and rarely deployed but used to maximum effect. When Billy begins to space during a barrage of comments from admirers or when his thoughts run away from him during the National Anthem, the words are spaced out over the page in an wide, jumbled mis-mash – complete with regional inflections, too: “Nine-Eleven” becomes “nina leven”, “terror” is “terrR”, etc etc. It’s a little bit of a snipe at W’s Texas drawl – but he wasn’t the only one talking like that. He just happened to be the one with the most prominence. As a result, we get the full undistilled shot of those buzzwords and it’s enough to make you shake your head and then run screaming from the scene.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I didn’t even get into the more fun bits of the plot, like Billy’s near-fling with a cheerleader and the appearance of Destiny’s Child at the halftime show and so on. I also can’t really go into the potency of the book’s psychological message without ruining the end of the book – although for anyone who has seen The Hurt Locker, you’re not necessarily going to be surprised. But suffice to say, for this review, that I was pleasantly surprised to find this book to be a potent analysis of the way we were, like, yesterday. If anything, it ought to spur us forward – away from that dark decade and further towards an America that isn’t a corporate joke.