Monday, August 19, 2013

Wordcraft -- Soldiers who can't find their way home

Was it part of the problem that everybody was just so darned nice? That we were too afraid of sounding like ranting talk show shock jocks or worse, prudes, to make any sound except occasional muffled, embarrassed laughter while Ben Fountain read aloud last Thursday from his National Book Awards finalist novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a volume filled with the “baroque obscenity and transcendental profanity” he used to capture the “jazz riffs” of soldiers speaking to each other.

I was late for Fountain’s reading at the Dallas Arboretum, the finale of the Dallas Morning News Points Summer Book Club because, running through my pre-event checklist -- notebook, pens, backup pens, camera, confirmation email -- I realized I’d misplaced the print out of my confirmation and stopped to reprint. I didn’t need to have worried. A gracious woman at the door asked my last name and directed me to the proper entrance, where I saw notebooks and pens waiting on every vacant chair. Not that there were many vacant chairs. The crowd, although not as dense as that greeting glass artist Dale Chihuly last year, was still impressive. They were all very nice.

To summarize Fountain’s story, a group of soldiers is touring the United States following a minor skirmish whose footage from embedded Fox reporters gave them a fling at fame. Fountain wisely declines to describe the battle where “Shroom” -- Sergeant Breem -- best friend and mentor of Spec. William Lynn, dies in his arms, except to say the news magazine coverage and video “bears no relation to any battle that Billy remembers.”

As the finale of Bravo’s “Victory Tour” they participate in the most disastrous halftime show ever during a football game, a Thanksgiving Day debacle that will see the Dallas Cowboys routed from the field, and the Bravos mugged alternately by those who profess to love them and those who hate them.

Billy will end up marveling at the cluelessness of his “fellow Americans” over the war. 
But Billy himself is only a recent immigrant from the land of the clueless. A high school dropout, he only joined the Army because a judge offered him the option of military or jail after he destroyed the car of a man who deserted his beloved sister. Now, despite the Bravos reception as heroes, they’re on their way back to Iraq to complete their tour of duty.

(As a literary aside, Fountain’s accomplishment in writing a significant novel entirely in present tense, with a single first person point of view and action taking place in a single day and single location, is amazing.)

Because the Dallas Morning News engaged eight essayists to expound on the meaning of Fountain’s novel in its Sunday commentary section, I won’t attempt to tell you what Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk means. Instead, I’ll tell you what it was like to be in the room with Fountain and so many nice people who all seemed opposed to war but had no more idea what to do about it than the Bravos had to make sense of the America they were estranged from.

Fountain’s immediate interest lay in the plight of those who, like Billy Lynn, are already bearing the brunt of war. He had found meaning, he said, in Ezra Pound’s analysis of Homer’s work, the Odyssey in particular, as the story of soldiers who spend ten years wandering, losing their way after the Trojan War -- “soldiers who can’t find their way home.”

“We see this myth in the First World War -- Pound calls it the Great War,” Fountain said, with new names for the malady in World War II (“battle fatigue”) and later, as post-traumatic stress syndrome or disorder.

In a society where “one out of three homeless people in America are veterans” -- people who literally can’t come home -- in a society where the Bravos ultimately beg to be taken “someplace safe -- back to the war,” because they can’t bear a life so separated from the reality of the world they know, where is home?

Fountain said he had hoped to be challenged, as Billy did, wondering why nobody called the Bravos “baby killers” -- but in vain. Everybody agreed, everybody wrung hands, everybody was on his side.

Near the end of the program, an audience member asked what it takes to make the routine “thank you for your service” to veterans meaningful.

Fountain said, “A sacrifice of a serious nature -- raising taxes, a draft, not being numb, being aware of what’s going on in our world. Doing our own thinking and then acting on it.”

Fountain’s work is, of course, available on Amazon. For more opinions, see

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