Ben Fountain between Iraq’s Reality
and the American Dream
By André Clavel
Between the realities of combat and the spectacles of society, Ben Fountain questions American engagement in Iraq in "Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk."
Translated By Craig Monaghan
22 January 2013
Edited by Keturah Hetrick
France - L'Express - Original Article (French)
“Whore of Death” is the title that Michael Herr chose for his unforgettable report of the hellish Vietnam War, and we often think about it while reading Ben Fountain, whose young hero has to leave his skin in Iraq. Billy Lynn grew up in redneck Texas, which hardly did him any favors, and, at age 18, he completely totaled his ex-stepbrother’s Saab. To escape being sent to prison, he is happy enough to enlist in the army and then join a garrison in Iraq.
At the beginning of the novel, Billy is on his way back home for a brief period of leave. With his company, the Bravos, he has miraculously survived an ambush — a television camera has filmed it all — and the day after, he has become the “savior of the nation.” He is a sort of Colonel Chabert, who, with the other escapees, is treated like a star upon his arrival back home in the U.S., even if his nights are haunted by the disappearance of his brothers in arms. “Billy didn’t try to commit an act of heroism. Oh, no, it’s the act of heroism that came to find him,” Ben Fountain writes before explaining how American radio and television are going to transform his cavalry at “the point of victory.” In the tragic comedy, the Bravos traipse past platform towns, are bombarded with the deaths of journalists and, soon enough, pass by a heartless producer who shoots a “fantastic scene” of their descent down into hell.
Ben Fountain remarkably describes this terrible breach between the reality of combat and the falsified image that gives society its spectacle. His narrative also shows how, with the complicity of show business, the Bush administration cynically used this media thrashing as justification for its policies in Iraq. “I think nobody knows what we’re doing there,” Billy says as he goes off to kick the bucket while wondering if this “in-between time” wasn’t in fact worse than the war itself, in an America ready to feed off the marionettes it parades around on screen. It is a merciless debut novel, at the end of which Ben Fountain asks this question: “Is there a point of saturation, a sufficient number of deaths, which will end up shattering the American Dream into a thousand pieces?”
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