Sat June 30, 2012
'Billy Lynn' A Full-Bore Tale Of Wartime Iraq
Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 8:19 am
Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old college dropout living in the small Texas town where he grew up. After he's arrested for trashing the car of his sister's ex, he's given two choices: face jail time or enlist in the Army.
He chooses the Army. And Iraq.
Author Ben Fountain's debut novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is the story of what happens to Lynn after he joins Bravo Company in the early years of the Iraq war.
Fountain's writing debut came at 48 with his short story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan talks with the author, whose first novel has already won praise — and even comparisons to Catch-22.
On why he chose to set the novel almost entirely in one place — and in one day
"I didn't want any gimmicks. I didn't want any tricks. I didn't want there to be some mystery or big secret that was driving the narrative."
On his protagonist, Billy Lynn
"[He's] very conflicted about being honored and being considered a hero. ... He's been hoping and expecting and waiting to come across the person who's really going to listen to him and help him try to make sense of what he's been through. And he never finds that person."
On the role of language in his novel
"From the very start, the correct rhythm, the correct sound for this book was going to be a headlong, reckless, full-bore kind of rhythm to it. And I wanted to try to capture the intense experience that Billy and the other Bravos are having, this very vivid, almost overwhelming sensory experience. I wanted to try to capture that, not just the images that the language is evoking, but in the sound of the language itself. I didn't want to give the reader a rest."
On starting his writing career at the age of 48
"It just took me a long time to develop. And maybe if I had, you know, gone and gotten a Master of Fine Arts in writing or been more connected to a writing group, that would have saved me some time."
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old college dropout living in the small Texas town where he grew up. After committing a crime - he trashes the car of his sister's boyfriend - he's given two choices: face jail time or enlist in the Army. So Billy Lynn chooses the Army and joins the men of Bravo Company in Iraq and becomes an unlikely hero.
BEN FOUNTAIN: (Reading) So these are Billy's thoughts while he makes small talk about the war. He tries to keep it low-key, but people steer the conversation toward drama and passion. They just assume if you're at Bravo, you're here to talk about the war because, well, if Barry Bonds were here, they'd talk about baseball. Don't you think? Wouldn't you agree? You have to admit. Here at home, the war is a problem to be solved with correct thinking and proper resource allocation. While the drama and passion arise from the terrorist goal of taking over the world, our way of life, our values, our Christian values. Billy can feel his head emptying out.
SULLIVAN: That's Ben Fountain reading an excerpt from his debut novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." The novel takes place during the early years of the Iraq War and centers around the title character, Billy Lynn, and what happens to him while he's serving overseas.
FOUNTAIN: Four months into Billy's deployment in Iraq, his squad was involved in a firefight at a place called Al-Ansakar. And Billy's mentor and best friend in the squad, Sergeant Breem, otherwise known as Shroom, was killed, and Billy was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in that engagement.
SULLIVAN: Does Billy Lynn like being a hero?
FOUNTAIN: Billy feels weird about it. And I think at one point in the book, he says something to the effect of it's very strange being honored for the worst day of your life. And I took that quote directly from a Medal of Honor winner in these most recent wars, but I felt like that probably pretty much sums it up. I mean, you're very conflicted about being, you know, honored and being considered a hero.
SULLIVAN: Hmm. Most of this book takes place in Dallas - in Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys used to play - on Thanksgiving Day and you've got essentially the entire book taking place in one day in one place. You know, in today's plot standards, not a whole lot is happening. The stadium isn't blowing up or something like that. But at the same time, it's just - it's compelling. How did you figure out how to make that happen from a plot standpoint?
FOUNTAIN: Well, I didn't want any gimmicks. I didn't want any tricks. I didn't want there to be some mystery or big secret that was driving the narrative. And, you know, there were various possibilities bouncing around. I could have had extended flashbacks to Iraq, or we could have followed the soldiers, you know, from the United States back to Iraq. And in the end, I felt like if it's working correctly, I think I can do everything I want to do and maybe find out the things I want to find out just by concentrating on this one day.
SULLIVAN: Hmm. The writing in this book is so visual. I mean, it's almost cinematic. And one minute, we're with Billy in Dallas and the next minute we're with his sister Kathryn. And we're just overhearing their conversations and language just seems to play such a big role in this book. Even on some of the pages, you have the words that just trickle down the page like a waterfall. What is the role of language in this book?
FOUNTAIN: That's a great question. And when the initial impulse for the book came to me, it came to me with the notion of it needed to sound a certain way. There's got to be a certain kind of rhythm or speed to it. And it seemed, you know, from the very start, the correct rhythm, the correct sound for this book was going to be a headlong, you know, reckless, full-bore kind of rhythm to it. And I wanted to try to capture the intense experience that Billy and the other Bravos are having.
I mean, this very vivid, almost overwhelming sensory experience - I wanted to try to capture that in the language - not just the images that the language is evoking but in the sound of the language itself. I didn't want to give the reader a rest.
SULLIVAN: You write with such derision in the book about the movie contract that the heroes of Bravo Company are either going to get or not going to get and what's going to happen with that. And here you are with a movie contract for your book.
FOUNTAIN: And, you know, my happiness would be complete if we actually could get Hilary Swank to play either Dom or Billy in the movie. You know...
SULLIVAN: This is the running joke throughout the whole book about whether Hilary Swank is going to play one of the men in Bravo Company.
FOUNTAIN: Right. And will she play it as a guy, or will she play it as a girl? I mean, Hollywood is it's kind of like in a different solar system based on my, you know, pretty cursory dealings with the movie industry. But, you know, we'll see what happens going forward.
SULLIVAN: But what would Billy Lynn think?
FOUNTAIN: I think Billy is - I think Billy has a pretty generous spirit. Billy is going to, you know, before judging the situation, he's going to step back and get all the information he can and think about it for a little while.
SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with writer Ben Fountain. His debut novel is called "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." Ben, you have a remarkable writer's story. Your big break as a writer didn't come until you were 48 years old, and that was 18 years after you first dropped your career as a lawyer to become a writer.
FOUNTAIN: Right. Thanks so much for emphasizing that - 18 years.
FOUNTAIN: You know, it took me a long time to figure out how to possibly do some decent work. And I mean, it didn't come quickly for me, for whatever reason. Every once in a while, I'd write something that was reasonably satisfying to me. But it just took me a long time to develop. And maybe if I had, you know, gone and gotten a master's of fine arts in writing or been more connected to a writing group, that would have saved me some time.
But pretty much everything I learned, I learned on my own, and I made a lot of mistakes and went down a lot of false trails. And I wouldn't wish that part of my career path on anyone.
SULLIVAN: It's worked out for you nonetheless.
FOUNTAIN: Yeah. And, you know, maybe all of that was necessary. And ultimately in the end, it is what it is. And I'm glad for the little bit of success I've had to this point.
SULLIVAN: You've got a lot of buzz surrounding the novel now. And critics have praised it. Some have even compared it to "Catch-22." What do you think when you hear things like that?
FOUNTAIN: Well, I'm really grateful that people are reading the book and paying attention to it. You know, it's nice to be recognized for some work you've done and especially if you think, well, maybe I've got some things right in there. But, you know, ultimately, it's about the writing itself. And all the praise in the world, all the good reviews in the world, they don't help you get the words on the page when you sit back down at the desk on Monday morning. You know, it's going to be as hard as ever.
SULLIVAN: You know you're going to make a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s drop what they do and want to write their own great American novel.
FOUNTAIN: Well, I'm sure editors and agents across America are shuddering, you know, just thinking about the wave of manuscripts they're going to get in the next 18 months. But everybody's got to decide for themselves. And if it's a powerful thing and a particular person, I think they need to pay attention to that. And I think when we don't pay attention to these powerful drives and this - it becomes very difficult to have a good life.
SULLIVAN: That's writer Ben Fountain. His debut novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is out now. Ben, thanks so much for being here.
FOUNTAIN: I really appreciate your having me, Laura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.