Back in 1987, I moderated a panel discussion with four accomplished writers at Vietnam Veterans of America’s National Convention in Washington, D.C. The topic was the Vietnam War Novel. The panelists were Robert Olen Butler, Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, and Tim O’Brien. Their books included Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Caputo’s classic war memoir, A Rumor of War; Heinemann’s National Book Award-winning novel, Paco’s Story; and O’Brien’s National Book Award winner, Going After Cacciato.
All of the men served in the Vietnam War. All wrote memorable works of fiction, including novels that dealt with that war and its veterans. One of my first questions, then, was: “Do you think of yourselves as Vietnam War novelists?” I remember Butler’s answer word for word.
“Calling us Vietnam War writers,” he said, “is like calling Monet a lily pad painter.”
I’ve thought about Butler’s remark many times in the decades that have passed as I have read and reviewed scores of war novels, virtually all of them written by Vietnam veterans about the Vietnam War. But only now, in 2013, after reading Ben Fountain’s astonishing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—which was published in 2012 and is just out in paperback (Ecco, 307 pp., $14.99)—has the full import of Butler’s remark become clear in my brain.
Fountain’s book is “Iraq War novel,” or at least deals with the war on every page. That’s why I put it way down on my to-read list. I didn’t feel like wading through another war novel, especially one dealing with a war I had no knowledge of, nor much interest in. What I didn’t realize until I started the book is that calling Billy Lynn an “Iraq War novel” is like calling Moby Dick a whaling novel. Yes, Fountain’s book is about a war and its warriors, but it’s much, much more than that—it creates a unique world that illuminates life’s biggest questions through creative storytelling.
Fountain’s story zeroes in on 19-year-old Billy Lynn and his squad of infantrymen who performed a supremely heroic deed in Iraq that a TV crew caught on video. The video goes viral, the men are acclaimed as heroes, and brought home on a kind of good-will tour that culminates on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. There, deep in the heart of Texas, Billy and the other men of Bravo squad will be honored and feted before, during, and after the game, but especially at a special, super-patriotic halftime show.
Fountain got me on the first line and never let up: “The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and wind whipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo’s minibar.”
He carries this muscular, lyrical, and insightful writing right on through to the end of the book. The characters are sharply and believably drawn. The clever and twisting plot moves along rapidly to a suspenseful climax. There is plenty of humor, a lot of it dark. And there’s the ever-nagging, Catch-22-like existential dread hovering over the entire story as Billy and the guys contemplate going from their surreal celeb status in Dallas back into the grit and horror of the war in Iraq.
Fountain—who did not serve a day in the military—somehow nails the essence of his young soldiers. What Billy and the guys do and say is just about pitch perfect. Fountain gets today’s military men. He also evokes the zeitgeist of other fighting men in other shooting wars. In Fountain’s characters I saw echoes of myself and scores of other Vietnam veterans. And I’m sure a veteran of the Korean War or World War II would say the same thing.
The Vietnam War gets several brief mentions in the novel. It comes up when the Bravos banter with the Hollywood producer who is trying to get them a movie deal. When they jokingly invite him to come back to Iraq with them, he says, “I’d just get in the way…, plus I’m pretty much your classic pacifist twerp. Listen, the only reason I went to law school was to stay out of Vietnam, and lemme tell you guys, if my deferment hadn’t come through, I would’ve been on the bus for Canada.”
To which one of the Bravos says, “It was the sixties.”
“It was the sixties, exactly,” the producer replies, “all we wanted to do was to smoke a lot of dope and ball a lot of chicks. Vietnam, excuse me? Why would I wanna go get my ass shot off in some stinking rice paddy just so Nixon can have his four more years? Screw that, I’m not the only one who felt that way.
“All the big warmongers these days who took a pass on Vietnam—look, I’d be the last person on earth to start casting blame. Bush, Cheney, Rove, all those guys, they just did what everybody else was doing and I was right there with ’em, chicken as anybody. My problem now is how tough and gung-ho they are, all that bring-it-on crap, I mean, Jesus, show a little humility, people. They ought to be just as careful of your young lives as they were with their own.”
Ben Fountain has created a masterpiece of a novel that evokes what war does to those who take part in it.