Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is stuffed so full of Americana, it’s enough to make the most effusive red-stater blush.
Set on Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, the novel follows an Army infantry unit as they prepare to take part in the football game’s half-time festivities that will feature Destiny’s Child. We meet Specialist Billy Lynn and the rest of the Bravo squad on the final day of a two-week Victory Tour through the United States. The Bravos find themselves the focus of intense patriotic fervor after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them repelling Iraqi insurgents on the banks of Al-Ansakar Canal.
Billy is the focal point for the public. He earned a Silver Star for his heroics that day and bears the scrutiny better than most by playing the role of the humble soldier and tuning out the rhetoric. Words like “terrRist,” “nina leven” and “currj” drift in and out of Billy’s consciousness like a tone poem by Kenneth Patchen.
What the viewers at home don’t realize is that Billy’s actions were a response to the death of the soldier who served as his mentor and moral compass. Without him, Billy’s adrift in a sea of jingoistic lingo. But when the cameras are off, the Bravos are crass, crude and unrepentantly lewd with little on their minds but free, luxury-suite liquor and Beyoncé’s bountiful bootie.
Ironies abound in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was nominated for a National Book Award. The Dallas Cowboys franchise emerges as a perfect symbol of America during the Bush years: a once-proud but now thoroughly mediocre team hijacked by a bumbling, no-nothing owner who acquired the franchise through oil money. Remind you of anyone?
The dirty little secret behind the Bravos’ Victory Tour is that when it’s over, they have to go back to Iraq, a fact that outrages everyone—from Billy’s liberal-leaning sister to the Christian Cowboys cheerleader who falls for him to the ultra-rich boosters who backslap the Bravos in the luxury box.
And there’s the catch-22. If you celebrate the Bravos’ achievements, then you have to support sending them back into harm’s way. The fact that none of the characters do underscores the secret that so many red-blooded Americans were reluctant to admit: The only possible outcome for Bush’s bogus war was failure.
That’s a reality that no one on America’s Team can stomach.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max is the hugely compelling first biography of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, which is regarded by some as the most important American novel of the late 20th century.
After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Max was assigned to write a story for The New Yorker about the author’s life and work in the days leading up to his death. Max, driven by a desire to know more, expanded the essay into this book. Wal-lace was a reclusive writer who used his fame as a shield, which those close to him fiercely protected. Now we know why.
Readers of Infinite Jest have guessed that something happened to Wallace during his short stay at Harvard. In the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which is essentially a transcript of a week David Lipsky spent on the road with Wallace shortly after Infinite Jest was published, Lipsky tries to get Wallace to talk about it no less than three times. Wallace steadfastly refused.
Like many who deal with undiagnosed mental illness, as a young man, Wallace self-medicated with marijuana when he could get it and alcohol when he could not. Over time, this coping mechanism morphed into a lifestyle, and, soon after, the drugs and alcohol created more problems than they alleviated. Addiction is difficult enough for those who don’t suffer from mental illness, but doubly so for those who do. Wallace, however, appeared to have beaten his demons.
Wallace didn’t use recovery as a rabbit hole to escape his situation and then put it behind him. He regularly attended meetings, sponsored other drunks and addicts and kept in touch with fellow substance abusers all his life. He also predictably plundered the axioms and idioms of drug and alcohol rehabilitation in his fiction. But if his recovery was such a success, where did he go wrong?
Max maps out the evidence and lets the reader draw her or his own conclusions. What Max does best is document how the chaos and confusion or safety and serenity of his life impacted his art. If only Wallace’s ghost could rewrite the ending of this tragic story.