Sex, authority—and the absurdity of football
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a sly first novel about a squad of soldiers who spend a day with the Dallas Cowboys. In a review of the novel for BookPage, Harvey Freedenberg praises how author Ben Fountain “employs his ample satiric gifts to depict how flag-waving patriotism merges with our worship of professional football in a single manic event.”
Here, the author describes the televised event that inspired his book—and explains why he’d “rather die” than attend a professional football game.
I understand that you ﬁrst got the idea for this book when you saw the halftime show at a Cowboys’ game in 2004, when Destiny’s Child actually performed alongside soldiers. Can you describe the thoughts that went through your head during that performance?
I thought it was the nuttiest thing I’d ever seen, but maybe that was because I’d had a couple of martinis. Or maybe the martinis had peeled the scales from my eyes and I was seeing the show for what it was, this surreal blowup of pop music, softcore porn choreography, ﬁve or six marching bands, a hundred or so ﬂag girls, a company’s worth of ROTCs, a U.S. Army drill team doing close-order drill—and ﬂags, lots and lots and lots of American ﬂags.
It was almost like those bondage clubs you hear about? Where authority and sex get all mashed up together in this overheated psycho-sexual stew, except this was prime-time on Thanksgiving Day, in a stadium with 70,000 people looking on and a TV viewing audience of 40 million. I think the ultimate clincher for me was that everyone seemed okay with it, the commentators in the booth, the fans in the stands, the people taking part, everyone seemed to accept this sort of hysterical yoking of sex and patriotism as perfectly normal.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place over the course of a few hours. It is unusual for a novel to take place in “real time.” Why did you decide to tell your story in this way?
As I was messing around with various scenarios, it began to seem corny to do it any other way. I sketched out a number of extended ﬂashbacks that took place in Iraq, and considered starting the book in Iraq, or early in the “Victory Tour,” or even following the Bravos back to Iraq. But in the end, those alternatives just began to seem ﬂat and predictable to me, especially the long set pieces in Iraq. I suppose that’s the way they’d tell you to do it in a mediocre sort of MFA program—show don’t tell blah blah blah. That kind of writing-by-numbers is just so damn tedious. I ﬁnally just went with my instinct, which was to hit that one day hard, the Bravos’ day at Texas Stadium, and then get out. And if certain things are never made clear—what exactly happened in the battle at the Al Ansakar Canal, for instance, or what happens to Billy and the Bravos when they return to Iraq, that’s ﬁne. I didn’t feel the need or the desire to explain everything.
On Thanksgiving Day, in a stadium with 70,000 people looking on, everyone seemed to accept this sort of hysterical yoking of sex and patriotism as perfectly normal.
Your novel is ﬁlled with (often hilarious) dialogue, which you obviously have a knack for writing. How do you capture conversation so well? Did you go to a Cowboys’ game and eavesdrop?
I’ve reached the point where I’d rather die than go to a pro football game, especially one at Cowboys Stadium. It’s mainly advertising—that damn seven-story Jumbotron is hanging there over the ﬁeld, staring you right in the face and blaring commercials during all those interminable pauses between the actual football plays. I did do a tour of the stadium while I was writing the book, and the guide informed us that the stadium contains no fewer than 4,000 televisions. What does that tell you? To me it indicates that all those people trek out to the stadium and end up watching the game on TV, just like the rest of us schmos at home. So I had my doubts as to whether investing the time and money to attend a game would be an edifying experience. My guess is that I would’ve drunk three or four beers out of sheer desperate boredom, and fallen asleep. Go team go!
The dialogue came from the same place that most of the rest of the book came from, i.e., whatever experience and imagination I could summon from within myself that might make a particular scene genuine and real.
In early July, the New York Times ran an op-ed from Thomas E. Ricks titled “Let’s Draft Our Kids.” He was echoing General Stanley A. McChrystal’s opinion that the United States should reinstate a draft so that “everybody has skin in the game.” What are your feelings on reinstating a national draft?
I can see the logic in it. It may well be that war doesn’t truly become real for us unless we, or people extremely close to us, are threatened directly and personally by the war. In some ways war is more present to Americans at home than ever, thanks to technology—we can view the most graphic, horrifying images of death and destruction in our dens, on our big-screen TVs, in high deﬁnition, no less. But unless we have that urgent emotional connection to what’s going on—unless we love someone who’s involved and at risk—then I think our understanding of the true cost of war is going to be superﬁcial at best.
So, yeah, reinstating the draft would be one way of making sure everyone has skin in the game. Or, let’s put it bluntly—a way of making sure the middle and upper classes are putting in skin. But I also think it’s a somewhat crude and lazy mechanism for getting the citizenry to pay attention to what our leaders are doing with their power to wage war. If we were paying attention, holding our leaders to account, there wouldn’t be the need for a draft as a consciousness-raising tool. But maybe that’s what it would take, that kind of hammer to the head.
What is your favorite scene in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?
I had a good time writing the scene where Billy and Mango go into the Cowboys Select store and start beating on each other. The scene where Billy and Faison make out behind the stage backdrop, that was fun. Turning Billy loose, so to speak. Seeing him make that connection with Faison, I enjoyed that.
Is there any one book or author who’s had the most profound inﬂuence on your writing?
It depends on who’s in my head on any particular day. The writers who seem to be in regular rotation include García Márquez, Walker Percy, Hemingway, Joan Didion, Mailer, Robert Stone. I sure like the Haitian writer René Depestre a lot—if he were to win the Nobel Prize before he dies, then my happiness would be complete.
What can you tell us about your next project?
I’m working on some short stories right now. As for a novel, my thoughts seem to be leading me south, toward the Caribbean. That’s one of the great things about doing this kind of work, you get to follow wherever your interest leads you. I highly recommend it.
Read a review of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.