Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Any thinking American who read Generation Kill, Evan Wright's remarkable account of being an embedded journalist with an advance group of Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, would immediately consign the notion of military heroes to the grave.
Here was a modern American army unit, hyped up on testosterone, video game culture and pure caffeine, involved in a shapeless war and commanded by many ill-equipped for their role. There was nothing heroic - in the old fashioned, or recently media-invented, term - in who they were and what they were about. They were flawed individuals capable of great feats of bravery as much as rash, pointless and stupid action.
Generation Kill is one of the most insightful books about those involved in this field of conflict, and spawned a mini-series of the same name, as well as providing material for the short-lived television series Over There (which was too real for lounge-bound audiences; as the conflicts dragged on, falling ratings saw it cancelled after one season).
This astute debut novel takes a similar but different look at those who have been on the frontline and puts in focus a day in the life of survivors of Bravo company who have defeated insurgents (losing two of their own).
More important, however, is that their firefight was captured by a Fox News camera crew, so they are swept home as national heroes and put on a politically cynical two-week "Victory Tour", which means public appearances, hand shaking and, on this day, being trotted out at Texas Stadium on a nationally broadcast Thanksgiving Day game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.
There are cheerleaders, Destiny's Child performing and on the periphery a slippery character negotiating a movie deal for their story.
Hilary Swank is interested in playing the parts of central character Billy Lynn and Dime, that will be folded into one role. Truth may be the first casualty but exploitation runs a close second.
"Weird is the new normal," says Dime in a dismissive phrase which captures the essence of their world right now. In two days they will be back in Iraq for another 11 months.
Lynn observes this surreal day through the fog of a hangover, emotional and physical weariness and an increasing tinge of cynicism about what he hears from well-intentioned, back-slapping civilians who speak in disjointed cliches of "freedom", "terrRist", "nina leven", "currj" and "values".
Through a kaleidoscope of changing observations, he observes bovine Americans spouting on about heroism, the litany of fast-food outlets, gross consumerism and "hero" worship in a way he had never previously encountered.
Theirs is an acclaimed "tale of heroism ennobled by tragedy" (Billy sees it rather more pragmatically) and he endures endless questions about what it was like, being shot at, shooting back ... for which he has no answer.
Bravo are caught up in the spectacle of events and later Billy observes of his fellow Americans - whom he also passionately loves - "they like to talk up God and country but it's the devil they propose, all those busy little bio-chemical devils of sex and death and war that simmer at the base of the skull, punch up the heat a few degrees and they rise to a boil, spill over the sides".
Between such observations, author Fountain pulls together a powerful and focused narrative, believable characters either enjoying or enduring their moment, and some humour to leaven the pain of them being in this hyper-heated crucible of media and public attention.
This fast-paced, politically-fuelled but very humane novel twists on an uncomfortable pivot for American readers: to see ourselves as others see us. The "others" however are Billy and Bravo, born of themselves.
After random encounters, flawed family members, and the raw camaraderie of companions being one of the few things they can hang on to, the heroes of Bravo are released.
"Take us someplace safe," says Crack. "Take us back to the war." c
Graham Reid is an Auckland writer and reviewer.