Gotham Diary:
Words Fail
9 January 2013

As if sorrow is the true reality? Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory.

I allowed myself to make marginal squiggles in my copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk only twice. The second time, at the other end of the book (the above appears on page 11), I wanted to note Ben Fountain’s capture of something that I saw a lot of when I was young but was too repelled to try to describe: “the sure and liquid style that comes of long success.” I would go a bit further, and say that the style is produced by the success; it is really all that success really brings. The notion that this style is liquid seems particularly important: success is not achievement.

But, getting back to the other passage, it is the novel in a nutshell. The question is never answered; the belief remains a working hypothesis. It is tragic and not tragic at the same time, in the manner of the epic poems. A dark glory suffuses the long hangover that Billy Lynn never manages to shake in the space of a long Thanksgiving Day at the Texas Stadium, outside of Dallas. The noble parentage and physical magnificence of the heroes of Homer and Virgil is replaced, in equal measure, by great native intelligence and a tenacious spiritual resistance to the bitterness of irony. Other aspects of the epics appear more straightforwardly. There are games, and there are battles; there are goddesses and trophies. There are adventures in foreign lands: although Billy never leaves the stadium grounds, nothing could be more exotic than the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room — an other-worldly visit fleshed out with a truly jawdropping look at the “small airplane hangar” where the team’s equipment is housed. (This chapter, “XXL,” is one of several free-standing monuments in the novel.) Billy Lynn shares something else with the Iliad: it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

At the same time, this is an up-to-date denunciation of the “nightmare of superabundance” that seems to hold much of the United States in thrall. The pointlessness of the war in Iraq is taken for granted; Fountain, a former lawyer in his fifties, takes full advantage of the perspective of the Obama Administration. The heroics of Bravo Squad (as Billy’s team is misnamed by the embedded Fox News crew that captures Billy’s heroism on film) are sketched in a few, spare strokes; Fountain does not presume to write at length about what he has not seen. What he has seen, as a Dallas resident, is the shape of his countrymen, and on this point we are reminded not of antique conflicts but of the spacebound colony of former earthlings in WALL*E. While sipping an illicit beer, Billy appraises the crowds in the stadium concourse, and wonders, as a soldier ostensibly fighting on their behalf, what they’re thinking. His companion, Mango, brings him down to earth with the observation that they’re thinking about their bets on the game.

Billy nods. That sounds about right. He doesn’t blame them for such pedestrian thoughts, and yet, and yet … the war makes him wish for a little more than the loose jaw and dull stare of the well-fed ruminant. Oh my people, my fellow Americans! See the world with prophet’s eyes! Virtually everyone is wearing Cowboys gear of some kind or another, parkas and caps stamped with the blue star logo, oversized jerseys, hoodies, scarves of silver and blue dangly earrings or other forms of team bling, some have little Cowboys helmets painted on their cheeks. Billy finds this touching, how earnestly they show devotion to their team. The women display more aptitude for game-day style than the men, who lumber around with Cowboys jerseys hanging past their coattails and their pants bagged around the heels of their boots, a fatal foreshortening of the vertical line that makes them look like a bunch of hulking twelve-year-olds.

The rich are in better shape physically, but their women are demented.

Never do Americans sound so much like a bunch of drunks as when celebrating the end of their national anthem. In the midst of all the boozy clapping and cheering perhaps a dozen middle-aged women converge on Billy. For a second it seems they’ll tear him limb from limb, their eyes are cranking those crazy lights and there is nothing they wouldn’t do for America, torture, nukes, worldwide collateral damage, for the sake of God and country they are down for it all. “Isn’t it wonderful?” the realtress cries as she holds him tight. “Don’t you love it? Doesn’t it make you just so proud?”

Just the opposite: terrified and ashamed.  


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is haunted by the ghost of Bravo Squad’s dead comrade, known to us only as Shroom, and about whom all we know is that he was a serious Zen Buddhist. Although Fountain never says as much, it is clear that Shroom has renounced this world — has freed himself from attachment to it. This freedom, coupled by the generosity with which he imparts his wisdom to Billy, is the force of Billy’s wartime education. We don’t see much of Shroom, or even hear many of the things that he said. His rank is not entirely clear; at least one reviewer identified him as a sergeant. (I don’t.) But Billy longs for him as much as any loved-on can be longed for. There was nothing carnal about their relationship, except for an exalted, unerotic kiss. Rather, Shroom was the first person to wake up Billy’s inner student. The wisdom that Billy manifests in the novel is perhaps implausible to some degree or other, but Billy himself is entirely unaware of it; he sees and feels only his own ignorance. Fountain presents the friendship with a brilliant obliquity: Shroom belongs to Billy more than he belongs to the novel. Billy gets to be our hero.

This gives the Victory Tour, and the day in Irving that we spend with Billy, a very strong sense of awakening, more a birth than a rebirth. For the first time, Billy sees what bothers him about his homeland, instead of feeling it dumbly. Tossing balls with the other Bravos before the game begins, Billy has a typical epiphany.

And if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make up more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of “play,” and then there are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other.

This is astonishing stuff, and even though there is almost nothing in this novel’s subject matter to interest me, the structure and the finish made every page gleam with genuine excitement.