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Billy Lynn's in the Army because he didn't want to go to jail for seriously messing with his sister's ex-fiancé.
Just your average guy from Stovall, Texas, Billy might not seem like the most interesting character to place smack in the center of a Big Novel About Serious Things.
But don't let Billy's aw, shucks demeanor fool you: there's a lot going on in this kid's head, and he's got a lot to say about the so-called reality we live in.
There's a small part of Billy—like, 30%—that wants to believe everything the Army has taught him about his role in life. He knows that to a certain extent, his life depends on him accepting the fact that he's just a grunt: gun-fodder and a warm body.
That's not to say that this realization isn't a painful one. After a well-intentioned businessman from his hometown graciously offers him a place in his company when (if?) he gets back from Iraq, Billy is forced to confront the fact that what the Army has beaten into him is true:
Billy had been trying to avoid a certain thought, a realization born of his recent immersion in the swirl of limos, luxury hotels, fawning VIPs; he knew intuitively the thought would bring him down and so it did, mushrooming into awareness despite all best efforts. Mr. Whaley was small-time. He wasn't rich, he wasn't particularly successful or smart, he even exuded a sad sort of desperate shabbiness. Mr. Whaley will return to the forefront of Billy's mind on Thanksgiving Day as he hobs and nobs at the Cowboys game with some of Texas's wealthiest citizens. The Mr. Whaleys of the world are peons to them, just as Billy is a peon in the world of Mr. Whaley, which in the grand scheme of things means that he, Billy, is somewhere on the level of a one-celled protozoan in a vast river flowing into the untold depths of the sea. (Bully.122)
Okay, so maybe in this instance, Billy is indulging in a bit of a pity party. We mean, it's true that Billy really does think of himself as little better than a protozoan, but sometimes he's a protozoan with pride. Billy and his buddies in Bravo, in fact, sometimes even kind of brag about the fact that they're considered disposable.
At one point in the game, for example, Lodis has fallen fast asleep (or passed out drunk—take your pick) in his seat, which, like all the Bravos' seats, is exposed to the freezing cold and rain. The Bravos don't really pay much attention, and a nearby woman is shocked at their nonchalance:
"How can he sleep in this weather?" she cries.
"Technically he's not asleep, ma'am," Crack informs her. "He's passed out."
The lady laughs. She's a cool boojee lady. Her husband and friends are chuckling too.
"But it's just miserable out here," she protests. "Shouldn't he at least have a blanket or something? Doesn't the Army give you coats?"
"Oh, ma'am, don't worry about him," Crack assures her. "We're infantry, that's kind of like being a dog or a mule, we're too dumb to mind the weather. He's fine, believe me, he don't feel a thing."
"But he could freeze!"
"No ma'am," Mango chimes in. "We punch him every once in a while to keep his blood moving. See, like this." He delivers a sharp whack to Lodis's bicep. Lodis snarls and throws out his arms, but his eyes never open."See?" Mango beams. "He's fine. He's happy. He's like a cockroach, you can't kill him!" (Vampires.22-29)
On the one hand, the Bravos have survived a lot worse than a crummy snowstorm, and they're proud of it. Try catching forty winks while you're under fire, boojee lady, are we right?
But on the other hand, Billy sees this bravado for what it is. He knows that deep down, Lodis is feeling that cold. Lodis would much rather be in a warm bed. Like, duh, who wouldn't? But any grunt worth his salt will take a nap when and where he can get it—and he'll act like he likes it, dangit, because that's what grunts are good for.
Basically, Billy, like the others in Bravo, has come to see himself less as a person than as a function. So even when he's doing something incredible, Billy chalks it all up to just doing what he's supposed to. When his big heroic act is finally revealed, in fact, we learn that Billy doesn't even know what's so special about the whole thing.
Billy was doing about ten different things at once, unpacking his medical kit, jamming a fresh magazine into his rifle, talking to Shroom, slapping his face, yelling at him to stay awake, trying to track the direction of the incoming rounds and crouching low with absolute f***-all for cover. The Fox footage shows him firing with one hand and working on Shroom with the other, but he doesn't remember that. He thinks he must have been cutting Shroom's ammo rack loose, pulling the release on his IBA to get at his wounds. Is this what they mean by courage? Simply doing all the things you were trained to do, albeit everything at once and very fast. (Virtue.57)
Yup. There's a reason they call training in the Army "doing drills": a grunt needs to be able to do what he has to do without even thinking about it, so that when the time comes and he's under insane amounts of pressure, his body will just take over.
So why are the guys in Bravo part of this? They're being used, right? Well, yes, if you ask them, they are indeed being used. But so is everybody else: the Bravos see that basically everybody is being used by those in power, in some way or another. What makes the Bravos different is that they know it. And even with that knowledge, they go about doing their jobs—and saving each other's butts:
[…] Bravo can laugh and feel somewhat superior because they know they're being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier's job but to be the pawn of higher. Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there's the final and ultimate, be killed. Every Bravo is a PhD in the art and science of duress. (Cures.61)
So, because Billy is the guy who performs most spectacularly under duress, he's the perfect grunt, right?
Well, not exactly. It turns out Billy's got a lot going through his mind all the time.
"I don't know. I was just thinking, I guess. About why people do the things they do."
"Billy, you are a philosopher."
"Hell no, I'm just a grunt."
Albert laughs. "How about both. All right, guy, hang loose. And tell Dime to call me." (Proud.45)
Sure, Billy's a grunt, but a lot of that I'm just a grunt stuff is merely a show for the people who don't expect anything more from him. In fact, as a dedicated disciple of Shroom, he turns out to be a pretty avid philosopher. It's hardly surprising, in a way: you can't face death, destruction, and the fact that most of the world is lying to you on a daily basis without starting to question the meaning of life, right?
By the time we meet him, Billy's a philosopher on the battlefield and off it—including during the halftime show. For example, when he's watching Beyoncé gyrate during the show, he's not thinking about her shapely thighs or anything like that. Nope, he's contemplating whether the show is some kind of new American religious ceremony:
Maybe the halftime show is as real as anything; what if some power or potent agency lives in it? Not a show but a means to something, something conferred or invoked. A ceremony. Something religious, so long as "religious" extends to such cold-blooded concepts as mayhem, chance, nature out of control. He feels the pull of a superseding reality that trumps even the experiential truths of a grunt on the ground—the blood on your hands, the burn in your lungs, the stink of your unwashed feet. Merely thinking about it sets off a pounding in his skull, not his headache but a heavier sonar throb deep in the lower brain stem. And very clearly the thought comes to him, that's where it lives. The god in your head, all the gods—is that what's happening here? He's too self-conscious and church-averse to accept a completely straight notion of god, so how about this—chemicals, hormones, needs and drives, whatever is in us that's so supreme and terrifying that we have to call it divine. (Raped.39)
Wha…? That's what he's thinking while all that chaos is going on around him? Here's what most people's interior monologue would look like in that moment: "Oooh! Beyoncé! She's so close! Should we touch her? Maybe we should touch her. Just a little. Like, a hair extension or something. How does she move like that? Whoa. I can't believe it. Beyoncé. Right there."
But if you ask Billy, that's the problem. We're so bowled over by all this empty spectacle that we're living in an alternate reality. We don't understand what's actually going on in the world.
Billy thinks a lot about the difference between reality and unreality. While he could be mindlessly signing autographs for fans at the game, for example, we see him all of a sudden start wondering whose reality is more legit, his or these fans':
This only takes a couple of moments, but while he's scribbling his name it dawns on Billy that these smiling, clueless citizens are the ones who came correct. For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality's b****; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he's lived what he's lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects. 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? (Proud.168)
Those are some pretty lofty thoughts, don't you think? Like, are those the kind of thoughts that are running through your head most of the time? We spend more hours contemplating who The Bachelor should chose than we do mentally debating about reality and God and life's great questions. But we've also never been grunts trying to save our friends from death.
So which Billy is the real one: the one contemplating life's great mysteries, or the one faithfully regurgitating Army orders?
Billy's a modest kid from Stovall, Texas, just doing what he thinks he has to do. But he's also a man who is just beginning to realize that life is full of huge questions that are begging to be answered. This is maybe best shown during the victory tour, when someone in the press asks Billy what battle is like:
Several days ago he was doing local TV and the blithering twit-savant of a TV newsperson just came out and asked: What was it like? Being shot at, shooting back. Killing people, almost getting killed yourself. Having friends and comrades die right before your eyes. Billy coughed up clots of nonsequential mumblings, but as he talked a second line dialed up in his head and a stranger started talking, whispering the truer words that Billy couldn't speak. It was raw. It was some f***ed-up s***. It was the blood and breath of the world's worst abortion, baby Jesus shat out in squishy little turds. (Human Response.36)
Billy knows what the media want to hear, and he thinks it's possible that the kind of stuff they want to hear is all they can really handle. But inwardly, he's knows that what he's saying isn't anywhere close to the truth. Playing into the media's expectations actually makes him feel dirty:
This does it; they throw back their heads and roar. In a way it's so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they're happy, they love him, everybody gets along. Sometimes he has to remind himself there's no dishonor in it. He hasn't told any lies, he doesn't exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied. (Everything.48)
Basically, what this tells us about Billy is that he hasn't quite figured out what do yet with his newfound knowledge about the nature of reality. He knows that so much of American life is one big illusion, and actively participating in that illusion makes him feel kind of nasty. But he hasn't really figured out what else he can.
What are his options in Texas? Pretty much just to work a minimum wage job and look forward to permanent financial hardship. At least in Iraq, he's got his new family—the Bravos—who've all bonded, and who all at least understand the nature of the reality they're living on, at least on some level. It makes sense that Billy feels loyalty to these guys, and even to the Army way of life—at least he can be honest as a grunt, at least as he sees it.
Fountain doesn't tell us if Billy will return alive from Iraq, so not only do we not know how Billy might develop and try to find his place in the world outside of the Army, but also don't know if he'll get the chance to develop at all.
But that's the challenge of this book. What do we all do with knowledge like Billy's? What kind of world do we want to live in? How can we make that happen?
Chew on that one, Shmoopers.