The Tournament of Books kicked off this week with a preliminary round featuring three books about the Iraq War. You’ve probably seen this list dozens of times by now so forgive me for noting once more, they are The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.
I have yet to read the first of these books, and at this point the likelihood of my doing so is pretty low, but before completely burning out on the subject mentally (because, of course, I’ve written hardly anything on it—primarily this discussion) I wanted to respond to the selection of Billy Lynn as the round’s winner (and, less specifically, as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction).
Billy Lynn seems to be a general favorite among the three books, and in many ways I can see why. Billy himself is a likeable protagonist. His fellow soldiers are fun, and their relationships genuine if not untroubled. These kids are real; they have been through the real shit; and they are going to keep it real at the positive madhouse that is a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.
US army officer and writer Nathan Bradley writes at the ToB that he “want[s] to know what the ‘road meat’ thought, what they felt and feared when, limbs still attached, eyes still bright, they were deployed to a country gone unhinged and blood-crazed. Neither Fobbit nor The Yellow Birds does so.” Billy Lynn certainly does, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad place to start. But I’ve been left for a while wondering what exactly Fountain’s novel offers beyond this. The end of the novel, which is supposed to offer some kind of resolution, left me cold (I’m still not sure exactly what was resolved and how), but more importantly I think the novel suffers from some major distractions. Bradley notes that “it would be a great shame if the author’s often naked partisanship alienates some readers—not that I disagree with it, but rather that some Americans are still so tearfully committed to the notion that we were always winning in Iraq, even when it comes to picking books for their local libraries,” but the specific issues he cites as “things that have rubbed conservative readers the wrong way” are not the ones I (not, however, a conservative reader) thought were the worst: “that the bulbous Texans and effusively patriotic rich folks are portrayed as gasbag self-parodies, or that the soldiers do and say bad things (like smoke a joint with a stadium employee, or get in scuffles with patrons, or get in a fight with the Destiny’s Child roadies).” I did think those “effusively patriotic rich folks” were depicted absurdly, but what rankled more was Lynn’s reflexive, unexamined, rather overweening anticonsumerism. A red-blooded Texan himself, Billy does love football, but so many things at the game sicken him.
It’s not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron, which displays not just the game in real and replay time but a nonstop filler of commercials, a barrage of sensory overload that accounts for far more content than the game itself. Could it be that advertising is the main thing? And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads. It’s too much anyway, what they want from it. Such a humongous burden the game has to bear, so many advertising dollars, such huge salaries, such enormous outlays for physical plant and infrastructure that you can practically hear the sport groaning under the massive load, and the idea of it stresses Billy out, the gross imbalance triggers a tweezing in his gut like the first queasy tugs of a general unraveling.
“It is infuriating, the psyche of the American consumer,” the narrator free-indirectly channels from Billy when he sees a kid without a coat, assuming he doesn’t have proper winter attire though his parents spent hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets. Of course, Billy can’t know the kid doesn’t have a coat he simply isn’t wearing, but his default is negative judgment, just as he defaults against advertising and the “burden” of dollars instead of wonder at how a game—a game!—can create so much wealth. On some level, I see this as the idealism of a young man who would probably get off on reading Siddhartha, but I also saw it as extremely hypocritical, considering Billy’s actual getting-off.
What was soothing and not something Billy had even anticipated was the pleasure of masturbating in his old room. …What a luxury not to have to meet your masculine needs in some stinking horror of a port-a-potty, or even worse in a hardpan Ranger grave out in the field with mortal enemies all about and always, always, always some torment of nature with which to content, bugs, rain, wind, dust, extremes of temperature, no misery too small for such a small thing as a man. So give it up for America, yes! And God shed His grace on thee, where a boy can grow up having a room of his own with a door that locks and a bottomless stash of Internet porn.
Why on earth should I take this last sentence as a successfully ironic jab? Are a room of one’s own and internet access not some of the most amazing things to ever happen to humanity? Billy doesn’t want to masturbate outdoors in the middle of sweltering heat and a sandstorm, and I don’t blame him. He wants to judge the appropriateness of others’ decided consumer comfort levels, but would clearly disagree with anyone who thought a port-a-potty was all he really needed. The Jumbotron is what’s bringing you your internet porn, Billy, and it’s all good.
I was also surprised at Bradley’s reaction to Fobbit. Though I have seen a few lukewarm responses so far, I took immediately to Fobbit in a way that Billy Lynn never clicked for me. The idea that Fobbit is, though, of all things “boring,” was a genuine surprise, as was Bradley’s wonder that “anyone unfamiliar with the military could muster the enthusiasm to finish it, unless from purest anthropological curiosity.” I thought Fobbit was funnier than Billy Lynn, and probably more compelling overall, so it just goes to show how subjective these things can be.
But the humor of Fobbit is dark and cynical. That is not to say that Billy Lynn is light or naïve, far from it. As Nathan notes, Fobbit is more in the spirit of Catch-22, but I construe that spirit much more broadly. These are war novels but also novels about the state, the machinery of bureaucracy, and the bizarro world of the cogs therein. It is less ha-ha funny, more horrifying funny. Bradley complains that he doesn’t “really give a damn about Abrams’s Byzantine office drama. Tell me a story.” In my view, the Byzantine office drama is the real story—the cause of all the “road meat,” the cause of everything, and the site of horrific impersonal unaccountability and irresponsibility. Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, one of the more odious characters in the novel and a middle-aged fobbit dedicated to PR, getting nosebleeds, and writing pathetic letters to his church-lady mother, includes this parenthetical in one of them: “Remember, Sunnis are the bad guys, Shi’ites are the good guys—I know, it’s hard for me to remember, too, because the bad guys sound ‘Sunny’ and the good guys sound ‘Shitty’—oops, language again.”
Not only do I find that funny, cloying “oops” included, I also find Harkleroad’s existence dramatically more problematic than that of the Jumbotron or the entire Cowboys apparatus. Billy Lynn seems to rail against American culture broadly in an effort to discredit supporters of the war and their lame patriotism, but if you haven’t already bundled consumerism and patriotism together in a basket labelled something like “ugly brash Americanism,” this may be less than effective. While Fobbit may not be the best bureaucratic satire ever written, it is better than fair (and better than boring) and concerned with problems I consider uglier than brash Americanism.
Full Disclosure: David Abrams is a fellow contributor to BookRiot, though we have never met or directly communicated with each other.