Whatever Mitt might think, if there’s one thing that makes us proud to be British, it’s the fact we’re not American. Alright, it’s true we don’t have a black president but we still think we’re cooler: less brash, more sarcastic and ready to give Tim Berners-Lee a starring role in the Olympic show.
The differences are particularly obvious when it comes to the holy trinity of American life: guns, god and portion sizes. And Ben Fountain’s debut novel – at the age of 48, he’s a honed late developer after the excellent short story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara (2006) – rips into all three over-indulgences. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the Bravo squad, after Fox News serendipitously captures their particularly bloodthirsty rescue mission to national rapture, have been flown home to be awarded their laurels. Except no resting is allowed. With what’s left of the squad of All-American heroes, 18-year-old Billy is gently but firmly ushered through a whistle-stop tour of the USA ending up at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game, the culminating highlight and scene for this blistering novel. The storyline and prose, despite stretching over just one day, set an equally unrelenting pace.
Pumped on Jack and Cokes, the Bravo squad steel themselves for the inevitable onslaught of admiring slogans barked incessantly by the American public; ‘sooh preeeme sacrifice’, ‘nina leven’, ‘dih-moh-cruh-see’ pop up on the page, piercing randomly though Billy’s ‘garbled secret funk’, utterly divorced from spelling, grammar, semantics and anything approaching the Bravo Squad’s reality. The Dallas Cowboy fans can’t help but gape at the men they sent to save their national honour, consuming the experience of combat vicariously:
‘Here, finally up close and personal is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.’
And fact and fiction are completely skewed: the Bravos are accompanied by Hollywood producer, Albert, who is increasingly desperate to clinch a deal for this modern-day Platoon whether it means relocating to WWII, casting Hillary Swank as a male soldier or zapping zeros on the Bravos’ potential paychecks. Couple that with enforced meet-and-greets with Texan oil barons and American footballers. Crabbed with muscle, they nobly offer: ‘We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you. Extreme, you know, like cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that?’ Then factor in a step-and-dance routine with Destiny’s Child at half-time. And they call war hell.
Only two things remain certain. First, the firm bond between the Bravos. Billy is fleshed out, realistically teetering between innocence and sagacity — a flashback describes the 24 hours spent with his fractious family and a sister wracked by guilt over her responsibility for his conscription. While his friend Mango can rattle off the names of US Presidents and their VPs ‘which tends to put a quick stop to any illegal-alien talk.’ Their surprising characterisation anchors the fizz of the writing. The book’s prose ricochets like a hail of bullets in the readers’ ears just as the American public’s self-fulfilling effusion bounces back and forth in Billy’s: ‘in the act of speaking they experience the mighty words, these verbal arabesques that spark and snap in Billy’s ears like bugs impacting an electric bug zapper.’
What’s also certain is that after this maelstrom of hectic capitalist and athletic spectacle, the Bravos will be gently, but again very firmly, ushered back to war and Iraq.
Fountain’s book bubbles with ideas, ambivalence and protest. The corporate bread and circuses of the US might be derided yet the alternative is equally hellish:
‘Here in the god blessed realms of mainstream America, you eat civilized meals and take civilized dumps, in doors, in peace on toilets that flush in the common decent privacy that God intended as opposed to the wide-open vistas of the barbarous desert, nature nipping at your ass like a pit bull puppy.’
Billy’s articulations are at once full of Fountain’s sophistication and a young soldier’s cliché (the Bravos have ‘PhDs in duress’), the jarring effect prevents any complacent reading on our part. It makes us aware – without trying to sound like the Cliff Notes to Baudrillard – to what extent reality is mediated … especially during war.
It’s easy to feel distanced. To see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk simply as an entertaining take on modern-day jingoism through the prism of liberal American guilt. Come on, though they may speak English, we all know it’s not the Queen’s. But perhaps we need to walk the walk of shame too. Thousands of soldiers are being shipped in, irrespective of whether they’re on leave, as security during the Olympic games or as camera fodder, expendable bodies to fill seats in empty stadiums.
Speaking recently to a friend in the army, he said that fellow officers were delighted to be drafted in as security at the women’s beach volleyball. Hottest ticket in town, right? Till they found out that they had to stand with their backs to the action, watching the spectators at all times. And unlike Bravo, or the actual soldiers who inspired Fountain, they won’t even get the chance to see Destiny’s Child or their ilk up close.
The best our soldiers can wish for are The Saturdays.
Fleur Macdonald is @fleur_macdonald