When I used to teach Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” to my honors sophomores, I sometimes asked the question “How have the traditions of medieval warfare – jousting, etc. – come down to us in the modern world?” The students’ first response is usually that they haven’t, and they are quick – and correct – to point out that wars are conducted differently now, with air assaults and drone attacks and guerilla warfare and precision weaponry. The idea that two parties would agree to fight on a particular field of battle and then allow each other time to build up their armies, train, equip themselves, and begin fighting at a designated time and under certain agreed-upon rules bears little in common with recent air attacks on Libya or the Navy SEALs’ capture of Bin Laden. But I repeat their words back to them – a field of battle, allowing each other time to train, fighting under agreed-upon rules – and they usually begin to get my point that we have internalized the customs of medieval warfare through our cultural obsession with field sports. And no sport bears more in common with medieval warfare than football.
I hate football. I despise professional sports in general but have a lot of respect for most sports at the recreational, high school, college, masters, and Olympic levels. To me, the purpose of sports is to develop the body and mind of the athlete – in other words, for self-improvement. Professional sports – especially football – seem to be dedicated to padding the bank accounts of the owners, managers, and players at the detriment of the minds and bodies of the athletes, who are reduced to automatons and literally bought, sold, and traded to serve the purposes of the men in suits who make the decisions for the teams and the leagues. Their bodies – which are obsessively well tended by trainers, coaches, and physical therapists but also often abused by steroid use and injuries – become commodities that they no longer control.
You know, like soldiers.
Ben Fountain’s new novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set at a Dallas Cowboys game. Lynn is one of ten soldiers from “Bravo company” (actually Bravo squad; the misnomer is proliferated by the media) who are taking a whirlwind PR tour of the United States after being caught on a Fox News camera during combat in Iraq. In addition to his squad leader, Sergeant Dime, Billy has been singled out for media attention for actions that were especially heroic. Fountain is wisely vague about what exactly these heroic acts were. As I read, I assumed that at some point before the end of the novel Fountain’s narration would flash back to Iraq and we would learn exactly what the men of Bravo had done. I was surprised and – when I thought about it a bit – pleased that this flashback never takes place, because ultimately what Billy and the other men of Bravo did does not matter. All that matters are the images that the camera has recorded that brand Billy and his fellow soldiers as heroes. Once a camera has recorded an image of something, that something is altered and its original essence becomes irrelevant. This idea is not new – it has its origins in much of postmodern art and literature and in scientific ideas like the Heisenberg uncertainly principle – but Fountain integrates it into his novel in ways that are fresh and highly relevant – using, among other things, the JumboTron screen at the Cowboys game to draw attention to the ways that we consistently fail to understand the wars that our nation is fighting.
The setting is significant – multiple references are made to the American west’s tradition of cowboys as brave, solitary heroes not unlike today’s ideal of a special forces soldier. In Billy’s internal monologue, he considers the possibility that the athletes of the NFL should be sent overseas to fight the war: “They are among the best cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance… Send them just as they are at this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys – how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans?” (184)
Fountain’s choice not to capitalize this series of NFL team names makes clear that he wants us to view these names – and the culture of football in general – with a larger sense of symbolic weight. And the choice of Dallas as the story’s setting becomes highly resonant when Billy and his fellow soldiers are invited into the private inner sanctum of fictional Cowboys’ owner Norm Oglesby, a man characterized by “his kindly blue eyes, his fatherly patience, the paralyzing forcefield of his mesmerizing narcissism” (279) to meet a cadre of wealthy Texans whose money and status have bought them the privilege of watching the game from the warmth, safety, and opulence of Oglesby’s private chambers. The placement of this affluent group in Texas suggests an allusion to President George Bush and his management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a safe distance.
A blurb on its cover hails this novel as a 21st-century Catch-22. To me, a comparison to DeLillo’s White Noise would be more apt. Catch-22 is a novel about the absurdity of war. Fountain’s novel is about the absurdity and excesses of the home front. White Noise is about the many ways that Americans use media and the products of our commercial society to distract ourselves from the fact that we are going to die. Billy and his fellow soldiers are taking a two-week hiatus from the war; shortly after their day at the football game, they will return to Iraq for eleven dangerous months. They have already confronted the reality of death and are aware that soon they will have to do so again. At the stadium, all around them they see evidence of the distance they have traveled from their culture’s almost pathological determination to deny the inevitability of death. Reflecting on the two-week tour as he watches the crowd slowly file out of the stadium, Billy is aware that “for the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents; their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows” (306). The omnipresence of television screens, cell phones, and other emblems of the media’s domination of American culture alludes to a reality that is only foreshadowed in DeLillo’s novel: “It’s not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron, which displays not just the game in real and replay time but a nonstop filler of commercials, a barrage of sensory overload that accounts for far more content than the game itself. Could it be that advertising is the main thing? And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads” (220). Talking by cell phone with a cheerleader that he hopes will become his new girlfriend, Billy notes that “it makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear. It puts a frame around the situation, gives it focus, perspective. It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself” (249).
For similar reasons, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is The Hunger Games for grownups. In this trilogy of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, an America that has been splintered by a vaguely defined, nuclear holocaust-like catastrophe and is now organized as a group of thirteen subjugated districts governed by a central capital, Katniss Everdeen is one of many teenagers who are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in an annual event known as the Hunger Games, which combines the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome with modern-day “reality” shows like Survivor. Before the games begin, the contestants, most of whom have grown up dirt-poor, powerless, and ignorant, are fed well, costumed, and made over to give them the appearance of heroes, and when the games are televised the entire country becomes invested in the success or failure of the contestants, much as people are riveted today by the competitors on American Idol. The fact that wars have become spectator events is not new; embedded TV crews have been part of the reality of war in this country since Vietnam. I watched precision guided missiles shoot down chimneys in Iraq during the first Gulf War, and when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked on 9/11 many commentators noted that it was hard to separate the disasters we watched endlessly on CNN from scenes like the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day, which so many Americans also viewed within the familiar frame of a TV screen. Billy notes that the set of the halftime show is “so real it looks fake” (288) and recognizes when he sees his own image on the Jumbotron that “nothing makes you feel more like a geek than seeing yourself on the tube staring straight back at yourself; there’s some peculiar quality of guilt or cluelessness that the camera seems to catch in the direct gaze” (132).
Billy himself is a Forrest Gump or Huck Finn figure, embodying American innocence. During his day at the stadium, he finds time to sneak away from the officially-sanctioned activities planned by his PR team in order to exchange text messages with his sister, sneak alcohol and marijuana, and he even manages a near-sexual interlude with his chosen cheerleader. Billy seeks beer and ends up stumbling upon great truths. As he is shown around the parts of the stadium that are usually closed to the public, he muses that “life in the Army has been a crash course in the scale of the world, which is such that he finds himself in a constant state of wonder as to how things came to be. Stadiums, for example. Airports. The interstate highway system. Wars. He wants to know how it is paid for, where do the billions come from? He imagines a math-based parallel world that exists not just beside but amid the physical world, a transparent interlay of Matrix-style numbers through which flesh-and-blood humans move like fish through kelp” (121). He considers his country, calling it “a giant mall with a country attached” (222) and noting that “never do Americans sound like a bunch of drunks as when celebrating at the end of their national anthem” (207). The novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day, a uniquely American holiday that celebrates American abundance, and Billy wonders, “Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants” (172). Billy is both universal in his identity as a nineteen year-old boy from a small town in Texas and a filter through which the ordinary props of happy, self-absorbed America – football players, cheerleaders, TV crews, a Thanksgiving feast – take on a larger and more sinister meaning.
This is a good book, a book that America needs right now. Its fast pace and humor belie its fundamental nature as a work of social criticism. The satire in Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is intermediate is neither completely mocking and light nor especially harsh. Instead, Fountain’s tone is one of bemusement. How did we get here? this novel asks. Is our nation’s current state of confusion something that powerful people created on purpose? If so, why? If not, then how can we understand and escape it?
Are we as free as we think we are?