Sunday, March 3, 2013

Two Books

2013 has introduced me to the writer, Ben Fountain.  A review of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Fountain's novel about the Iraq War first drew my attention.  I'm a sucker for war fiction which to my way of thinking is about the only way a writer can convey war's genuine absurdity and the many ways individual find a way to survive that absurd but deadly experience.  The story, about an infantry squad whose heroism under fire is captured video and vaults them into a two-week celebrity US tour to rebuild flagging support for a war has worn out its welcome, is a clever indirect look at war and the society that sends its soldiers to war. 

Fountain's narrator, Billy Lynn, is 19 from small-town Texas.  He understands his job but little about the world.  For Billy, the two week tour is almost as harrowing as the war itself.  At least in combat, Billy knows the score, knows how to act.  Mixing with celebrities and a fawning public that knows the mantra "Support the Troops" far more than it knows what it is supporting them to do, is more challenging and leaves him uncertain about what seemed so certain under fire. 

Billy's gradual awaking is set among the glitz and pageantry of Thanksgiving Day football.  The backstory is slowly revealed as the day progresses and Billy's fellow soldiers, now known popularly as "the Bravos" find their way through all of the hype.  Fountain makes it all sound real, each Bravo is a fully developed individual with his own take on the war.  They are young grunts, acting as young soldiers do, looking for the party, looking for the escape from the reality that always awaits them.  Along the way they provide a mirror that shows America still unwilling to recognize that reality. 

That deeper truth is what makes the story real to me.  Fountain's soldiers are blasphemous, their world laced with black humor.  The Bravos worldview is the eternal worldview of the infantry soldier; their inevitable fate frees them of the lies that the living build to protect themselves from the truth.  For the infantry soldier, life is short and cheap.  The infantry soldier can live with that.

Fountain tells the story well, with lively characters.  So well that I immediately found a copy of his short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.  The format and settings are different but here too Fountain demonstrates his ability to get beyond fact and objective reality to examine human thought and behavior.  None of the characters in these stories are in control, not John Blair, the ornithologist held captive by rebel guerrillas; not Jill, the aid worker in Sierra Leone; not the Haitian fishermen who find the drugs left on the shore.  None are in charge but most figure something out.  They manage.  All of the stories are compelling and eminently believable.

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