From the first time one group of troglodytes attacked another with the thigh bone of a water buffalo, young men have been sent marching off to war by middle-aged chieftains siting around the fireside with their harems and comfortably situated 401(k)s. The war against Iraq is no exception to that rule, or to the other rule that out of war are born tragic, hilarious novels that point out war's insanity, leaving us squirming with complicity and shame. "Catch-22" was one such book.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is another.
Taking place on Thanksgiving Day in the heart of the beast -- specifically, Texas Stadium as the Dallas Cowboys take the field -- the book follows the well meaning, traumatized, yet goodhearted Billy Lynn as he is shuffled along with his unit, from one ludicrous photo op to the next. The unit, dubbed "Bravo Squad" by Fox News, has been cellphone-cammed taking part in a dangerous firefight. This is the kind of fight the men in the big rooms of America dream of: odds against them, young men dying for freedom, God, Mom and apple pie. Billy Lynn, mortified, just wants to lose his virginity and forget about his best friend, Shroom, whose death he witnessed.
This kind of farce could be played with a British touch; their political satires almost revel in the moral vacuity of their characters. Ben Fountain, however, has Billy Lynn, a tad naive, but sensible to the ways of the world while still being mortified. Meeting one gushing group of country club members after another, Billy knows his job: to stand under the giant banner proclaiming him and his buddies the "Heroes of Al-Ansakar Canal!!!!!!!"
As for Fountain, seldom has the moment when patriotism devolves into mob sentiment been captured so perfectly:
"You let your eyes seem a little tired. You are unfailingly modest and gentle with women, firm of handshake and eye contact with men. ... People totally eat it up, in fact they go a little out their heads."
And: "They all need something from him ... half-rich lawyers, dentists ... corporate VPs, they're all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year . ... It was just, so obvious, what had to be done. ... Send in more troops. ... go in blazing, full frontal smack down. ... And by the way, shouldn't the Iraqis be thanking us? ... Or maybe they'd like their dictator back. Failing that, drop bombs. More and bigger bombs. Show these persons the wrath of God and pound them into compliance."
Fountain's strength as a writer is that he not only can conjure up this all-too-realistic-sounding mob, but also the young believably innocent soul for our times, Specialist Billy Lynn. He is a modern Candide, without the sexual naiveté and total simplicitude, a decent young man caught at a vicious milestone, and from the first page I found myself rooting for him, often from the edge of my seat. So, I would imagine, would any wide-awake reader.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."