Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk rating: 9.8
Fobbit rating: 5.4
Okay, comic novels about the absurdity of war, ten-hut!
Ever heard of a jody-count? Grunts everywhere sing jody counts—they’re marching songs, sometimes called cadence counts, named after that famous girlfriend-stealer Jody, hangin’ round yo home while you’re off fightin the war. Plus, it’s easier to march when you sing. Here’s the classic:
Ain’t no use in goin home,
Jody got your gal and gone,
Sound off! One, two, three, four, onetwothreefour!
Maybe a million martial-music jody counts exist, most unprintable. They tend toward lewd and crude at the lowest literary level, rise to politically populist at the middle and become fatalistic death rattles at the highest. Jody counts are probably as old as war, but the black troops in the newly-integrated WWII Army really jazzed ‘em up. In fact, everybody called them Duckworths for a while, after Fort Duckworth, Ala., where fancy drill teams marched to soul beats and toured the country doing dazzling shows. A jody-count pop song even made the hit parade in the early ‘50s, sung by one of the Duckworth marching companies.
Now, with iPods ubiquitous, every grunt that goes into combat has an individual soundtrack, usually Metallica or AC/DC, or maybe Drowning Pool’s execrable “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.”
Most war novels are essentially long jody-counts, laments about the low estate and crushing workload and limited life-span prospects of frontline combat soldiers, tales of their legendary libidos and their bravery in battle and their ability to hold their liquor. Yawn. There’s hope, though—in the best of the genre they become tragicomic Campbell-esque hero journeys like Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or the iconic comic war novel most likely to be voted number one on any top-10 list, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
The comic, satirical war novel came about fairly recently. Can you think of anything comic about the Civil War, or World War I? No? Me neither. The first popular works of fiction to focus on the absurd aspects of that brutal death machine we call war probably first saw the light of publishing day in the 1960s. Catch-22 came out in 1961, and almost immediately critics declared it one of the keystones of Western literature. Heller’s masterpiece changed the conversation about war—from death, doom and destruction to death, doom, destruction and derangement. His meditation on madness struck such a chord that novelists, playwrights and filmmakers immediately decided that insanity and modern war went together like Tristan and Isolde. As these novels and their filmic offspring took root, Western societies gradually changed their entire outlook about war, from the nobly heroic to the absolutely psychotic. Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, which became Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket; Peter George’s forgotten thriller Red Alert, which became Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which became George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse Five; all cemented the idea that war stories could no longer be told with a straight face. The old John Wayne-bravely-charging-the-machine-gun-nest meme just wouldn’t contain or express the horrible absurdity of the massive total destruction of modern warfare.
Instead, we get unspeakable genocidal killing in the Dresden firebombing, followed by Vonnegut’s resonantly famous Slaughterhouse phrase “and so it goes,” all buttressed with soliloquies on insanity and humanity’s continuing, catastrophic moral failure. Or we get Heller’s strange, quirky tale of lunacy, clarity and the bureaucratic, circular logic of death. In 1972 a judge banned Vonnegut’s great book because it is, and I quote: “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” Yup—that’s war, alright.
In this noble absurdist tradition, we now have two notable new books about America’s war in Iraq: Fobbit by David Abrams and Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain.
Fobbit, Army slang’s pejorative term for a rear-echelon non-combat employee at a Forward Operating Base, describes the typical desk jockey, a conflict-averse pogue who inhabits the safety of a protected perch far from the battlefield. In this case author Abrams, who served in this man’s Army for 20 years and as a PR guy for the war in Iraq in 2005, essentially functions as a reporter and tells the tale of the absurdity, inanity and stupidity of war from the fobbit perspective, The Office with bullets.
Abrams’ protagonist, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, encounters absolutely insane reasoning and even more insane characters, writes endless Activity Reports and press releases that try to sanitize and justify violent death and dismemberment, and, natch, goes quietly mad. Here’s the author’s description of our hero’s unenviable task:
His job was to turn the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatable – ideally, something patriotic – that the American public could stomach as they browsed the morning newspaper with their toast and eggs.
This premise seems ripe for exactly the kind of satirical tone set by Catch-22—and yes, you guessed it, blurbs on the back cover make that exact comparison, tiresome and hackneyed as it is by now—but Abrams’ novel doesn’t approach that pinnacle. He doesn’t even get close enough for a hand grenade, sadly.
That’s partially because the writing in Fobbit comes across in a flat, two-dimensional way. Clichés abound, the similes and metaphors you’d expect appear as expected, and the book ends up without showing us much of the high literary purpose and inspired creative lunacy a Catch-22 aspirant has to exhibit. Witness: ‘Chance Gooding, Jr. felt part of himself break away, like a chunk of glacier calving, a slow-motion slip and slide into arctic waters.’ The protagonist’s too-obvious name loudly telegraphs the author’s intent, and the simile? Nice try, but probably about the 87th time that exact icy comparison has been evoked in modern literature. This year. Don’t get me wrong—Fobbit has largely serviceable writing, which mostly gets the job done and occasionally exhibits some craft. But the limber fire of inspiration, I’m sorry to report, just doesn’t make an appearance here often enough.
More importantly, this book has a problem distinguishing between cynicism and satire. Instead of evoking satire in the best and most humane sense of the term, in which you actually want the characters to find their way through crushing and inhumane systems; Fobbit comes off as a merely cynical memoir, a mockery where no character has much nobility. This thin, two-dimensional irony told as a skepticism-ridden, sneering inside look at the folly and the FUBAR war always fathers makes Fobbit consistently miss its targets. This novel proves that modern warfare has become much harder to parody and critique than it was when Heller and Kubrick did it so well. Satirizing war requires a deeply insightful author, one whose sense of irony and black humor comes equipped with king-hell writerly chops.
Which Ben Fountain does, I’m happy and excited to say. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in my view, can now lay claim to the title of the finest and best novel to come out of America’s 21st-century wars.
And Ben Fountain, incredibly, astonishingly, almost beyond belief, has never gone to war. A confirmed civilian and an accomplished short-story writer, Fountain has won the Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry and tellingly edits the fine fiction in Southwest Review. His previous book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, established him as a global literary force with enough range to skillfully and powerfully navigate multiple societies and cultures. Billy Lynn, Fountain’s first novel, ought to make many aspiring novelists quake in abject fear, sell their laptops and start looking for marketing jobs.
The novel’s 19-year-old protagonist, Specialist Billy Lynn from Stovall, Texas, has just participated in a Fox News-filmed firefight in Iraq in which he and his boys from Bravo Company bloodily prevail. The Fox footage virals through the culture, and Billy and Bravo find themselves on a Bush-administration-sponsored Victory Tour, which culminates at that lofty pinnacle of American civilization, Texas Stadium:
This is the undeniable big time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it. In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American – football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, “Yew ARE America.”
What a wacky, perfect, pregnant premise. Pure, undiluted, clever satire, BLLHW has everything. Most of all Fountain—by dint of some magic potion or maybe by going down to the crossroads to sell his eternal soul to the ultimate grunt oracle—has managed to get the casual innocent obscenity of GI speech down. It seems uncanny, even spooky how he channels these grunts by nailing the way they talk. His late-teens and early-20s infantrymen speak to each other exactly, precisely like the real deal, in that quien-es-mas-macho brotherly insider patois every grunt knows. Bravo lives on the page because their speech rolls off their collective tongues, so dead-on and devastatingly real you hear them in your dreams. You’d swear Mr. Fountain had already worn out at least one set of desert camo fatigues, another manual laborer in the fields of death and dismemberment, to be able to just listen the way he does. He not only listens well, this guy can write:
They are in a large bare room deep inside the stadium’s bowels, a chilly space with concrete walls and cheap all-weather carpet that wicks the cold up through the floor in a palpable draft. Bravo has been brought here for the ultimate meet-and-greet with the Cowboys brass and selected guests, perhaps two hundred people have gathered with many family units on display, as is surely right and fitting on this Thanksgiving Day. It’s a class crowd, the men dressed in coats and ties, the women spiff in tailored suits with matching shoes and purses, though some of the hipper, edgier set make a winter fashion statement with skintight leathers and long fur coats. They could be the congregation of the richest church in town, Our Anorexic Lady of the Upscale Honky Bling; the only people of color here are the waitstaff and several gregarious former players; fan favorites from yesteryear who invested wisely and kept their noses clean.
Our Anorexic Lady of the Upscale Honky Bling—that’s simply, absolutely brilliant, inspired, bullseye accurate and hilarious all at once. I read this line, and lots of others like it in this book, and I warn you: people will ask repeatedly why you’re laughing so hard. In just a few words, that one line places the novel’s mostly poor and beleaguered but perceptive, canny, no-fool GIs in the exact context of their class and culture.
And it gets the attitude right, that hardest-to-scale slippery escarpment which leads to the pinnacle of literary peak-experience. As you laugh and lament simultaneously you’ll also find yourself marveling at the accuracy and perception behind each exposition, one after the other, the true mark of subtle, sublime satire and just plain great writing. Exhibit A: this description of the stadium itself, Fountain’s symbolic stand-in for a self-absorbed, fin-de-siècle America too immersed in its own sybaritic pursuits to actually care about the war it started or the soldiers it sent:
In fact he’s managed to grow up in Stovall, a mere eighty miles west, without ever setting eyes on fabled Texas Stadium, save through the expurgating medium of TV, and this first sighting feels historic, or at least strives to be. Billy studies it at length, with real care and attention, taking the measure of its size and lack of humor, its stark and irremediable ugliness. Years and years of carefully posed TV shots have imbued the place with intimations of mystery and romance, dollops of state and national pride, hints of pharaonic afterlife such as always inhere in large-scale public architecture, all of which render the stadium in Billy’s mind as the conduit or portal, a direct tap-in, to a ready-made species of mass transcendence, and so the real-life shabbiness is a nasty comedown. Give bigness all its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job. The roof is a homely quilting of mismatched tiles. There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-slugged masses of beached whaleness.
I could go on and on. Each page of this accomplished, terrific book contains passages equally as trenchant, smart and diabolical. In fact it reads like Duckworths sang and marched, cadenced with an irresistible combat-ready rhythm and a Bo Diddly jody-count beat. Fountain’s facility for fabulous writing and his pry-it-open dialogue and his ability to make you care so longingly about his creations all combine to make Billy Lynn superb—but the scope and sweep of the story and the way it nails the zeitgeist of the country transform this book into a real no-lie honest-to-Heller great American novel.
Fountain manages to place, at the center of this marvelous novel and deep within the heart of each of his short stories, a moral and spiritual conundrum. This rare genus of writing, so out of fashion in fiction until very recently, has thankfully started to stage a guerilla raid-style comeback in recent 21st-century literature. Here, Billy Lynn’s creator poses the deep moral question of duty or death that every soldier asks—do I stay and risk my own life to support the platoon that has become my family, or do I leave them and stop killing?
Usually I’m not given to bald declarative statements about literature. True art resists categories. I don’t generally appreciate 10-best lists or most comparative judgments when it comes to the art of fiction, preferring instead to concentrate on the power of the writer’s sweat and spirit on the page. But I gotta tell ya—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, without question, ranks right up there with the best books I’ve read in many, many years. Notice I didn’t say best war books—best books period. If you care about artistic achievement and you love gloriously, deeply serious writing about subjects that truly mean something profound then go read it, please.
David Langness is a writer, editor and literary critic who lives in the Sierra foothills in Northern California. He served as a conscientious-objector medic in the Vietnam War and is now an antiwar activist who helped create the most recent United Nations global nuclear disarmament campaign.