Saturday, January 17, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

With America buying hundreds of thousands of copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, featuring a serial womanizer/billionaire, and now spending hundreds of millions to see movies based on a board games (and just as science illiterate and simplistic as video games or comic books), the hold of the vapid mass market is still with us in spades (unfortunately.)  But for those who prefer a diet other than brain-fattening corn dogs (however delicious they may be in the moment), I suggest BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain, read by Oliver Wyman, a novel featuring Beyoncé in a role unlike any prior: that of not being the center of attention.  The author, in telling his story from the point of view of a soldier appearing as a "hero" in a Dallas Cowboys half time show, holds up a mirror to our culture while telling a sensitive and tragic tale of facile greed, naiveté, and blindness.  Billy, as a character, sleep walks down that stage, dazed as though in a dream.  His is like a kind of shell shock, experiencing the fake adulation for his group--called the Bravos--as they parade in front of a roaring crowd who view them as symbols no different than mascots in bull costumes.  They've been in battle, and will be returning to battle soon, but in the meantime here they are next to Beyoncé, in George Bush's Texas stadium circa 2004, on tight focus from Fox News, and no one has a clue to who they really are, or what war is really like.  They aren't even sure who they are, or why they are here.  But the listener knows they are fighting eternal battles manufactured by the Pentagon and by Presidents looking to preserve their political edge and their cronies' pensions at the expense of the taxpayers, while mothers who have to bury their kids need to hear about Patriotism, God, and Country.  The novel is a stunning indictment of our letting all this happen without really knowing why.  Placed next to the plot of the movie BATTLESHIP, the contrast becomes more palpable than any computer-generated special effects, and reduces any talk of box office buzz to the equivalent of monkey chatter in the dark. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.
Footnote: this novel is mentioned in James Fallows recent controversial Atlantic article "The Tragedy of the American Military," which is commentary on military spending and the superficial 'pablum patriotism' that the public shows in support of 'the troops,' who don't feel connected to them due to public ignorance of what they face: impossible tasks without clear focus or exit strategy. It is as if war is a game, and the fans cheer on the 'team' without really caring about concussions. So returning vets are shown waving flags, given parades complete with tailgate parties, then go home and commit suicide in record numbers. The movie American Sniper shows a narrow 'behind the scenes' on this, not caring about the politics, but The Atlantic asks the question of what a hero is, and if the Draft should come back in order to bring back lost reality. "There is a disconnect," says Fallows. "We honor soldiers but don't want to know much about them...much less question why they are there." Meanwhile, the attitude among top brass is to keep the money coming without real change. Pensions in many cases exceed $200,000 per year, while the F35 jet alone may end up costing half a trillion dollars...although critics say it's a boondoggle that isn't needed.

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