Ben Fountain’s debut novel centers on the Iraq War and the cultural and social values for which our soldiers put their lives on the line. The year is 2004 or 2005 and the Bush Administration trots out “Bravo Company,” an Army unit, for a two-week PR tour. Bravo Company has achieved viral celebrity status when a Fox News embedded crew filmed their heroic efforts to quell an ambush. Fountain’s setting, though, is not the battlefield, but a football field. The story begins as the war heroes wrap up their two-week tour with an incongruous appearance at halftime with Destiny’s Child during the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium.
The main character is Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who joined the Army rather than face jail time after trashing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s Mercedes. Bravo Company is accompanied by Hollywood producer Albert, who owns the movie rights to their story. In a nod to Joseph Heller’s classic war novel, Albert faces a Catch 22: the film based on Bravo Company’s heroic actions cannot draw financial backers until a marquee star is signed up, but no star will commit until the movie has financial support.
Fountain contrasts the abundance enjoyed by the well-heeled crowd in their luxury boxes, pumping hands with the Army heroes, with the gritty existence the soldiers experience in Iraq.
The author’s prose is both penetrating and eloquent, as he writes about the disconnect between the patriotic fervor at home and the soldier’s perspective. At one point, Billy reflects: “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there’s a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens.”
The suspense that drives the plot is three-fold: the movie deal Albert may or may not be able to negotiate (promising each member of Bravo Company $100,000 from the film), Billy’s sister’s attempts to convince him to desert the Army and leave the stadium with an anti-war group, and the intense feelings Billy develops for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Faison. Fountain ratchets up the tension as the football game progresses. Will Albert get the soldiers a big payday and will it matter, since they are hours from being shipped back to Iraq to complete their tours of duty? Will Billy desert the Army and hide away with Faison?
Fountain’s highly detailed description of the excesses of football—the beef-fed gargantuan athletes, the gladiator equipment, the marketing machine hawking Cowboys apparel, the pompous pageantry of the halftime show—are in sharp relief to what Billy is feeling inside. Is this what we’re fighting for in Iraq? Billy at one point wonders when “America became a giant mall with a country attached.”
At times, Fountain lays it on too thick, portraying one patriotic fat cat after another, gushing over the war heroes. But this serves to drive home his point: war is not a game like football, where we cheer for our soldiers and root for quick, decisive victories. War is messy and it is hell for those young men and women who, in the case of Bravo Company after its two-week tour, wonder what values they are fighting to uphold.
In the end, Billy is true to his values and the reader is left to ponder the state of America’s values.