Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Authenticity

By Ben Fountain


One nation, two weeks, eight American heroes, though technically there is no such thing as Bravo squad. They are Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, said squad being comprised of teams alpha and bravo, but the Fox embed christened them Bravo squad and thus they were presented to the world. (Thing Begins.14)

These days, it seems like everything is crafted for media consumption, regardless of accuracy or truth, and here is a prime example of that. A video went viral, a news station dubbed the guys Bravo, and, well, now that's what they are. Can't you just picture some news exec watching a screen saying, "Bravo. Great. It's easy to remember, it sounds positive and military, so package it up and send it. Who cares if it's not quite right?"

"All the big warmongers these days who took a pass on Vietnam, look, I'd be the last person on earth to start casting blame. Bush, Cheney, Rove, all those guys, they just did what everybody else was doing and I was right there with 'em, chicken as anybody. My problem now is how tough and gung-ho they are, all that bring-it-on crap, I mean, Jesus, show a little humility, people. They ought to be just as careful of your young lives as they were with their own." (Virtue.22)

One of the messages Fountain hashes out time and time again is that there is a lack of consistency from people, and that can be really confusing. In this case, he's discussing how hypocrisy is the name of the game in American politics. Think of all the "family values" candidates who cheat on their wives; or, as Albert is pointing out, think of those famous politicians who found ways to dodge the draft but loudly argued for war for the next generation.

"Listen," Albert says, "what Bravo did that day, that's a different kind of reality you guys experienced. People like me who've never been in combat, thank God, no way we can know what you guys went through, and I think that's why we're getting push-back from the studios. Those people, the kind of bubble they live in? It's a major tragedy in their lives if their Asian manicurist takes the day off. For those people to be passing judgment on the validity of your experience is just wrong, it goes beyond wrong, its ethics porn. They aren't capable of fathoming what you guys did." (Virtue.32)

Nothing says "authenticity" like people who have a different version of reality from the rest of the world's. But Albert has a point: if their idea of tragedy is something small and trivial, how can they be expected to understand true catastrophe? The answer is: they can't. They are incapable of comprehending what Bravo went through at Al-Ansakar Canal, and that's why they aren't jumping at the chance to make the Bravos' movie…even if it is "realer" than their manicurist taking the day off.

Tomorrow he'll read the newspaper and wonder why this, too, isn't part of the story: that the press, however grudgingly, gathered as instructed to record in its stenographic capacity Norm's presentation of Bravo Squad, a blatantly formulaic marketing event that enlightened no one, revealed nothing, and served no tangible purpose other than to big-up awareness of the Cowboys brand. (Dry-Humping.38)

Woof. You can't talk authenticity without having a gripe about the media (or as Fountain distractingly and totally incorrectly calls it, "medias"). The problem with truth is that elements of it are often subjective. What one person might find important to present may be very different from what the media present. And if it's all orchestrated as some kind of promotional deal? Well, all bets are off then.

"Hunh. Sheee-uh. Or why anybodys even got to know. Like we ride wit yall a couple weeks, nobody even gonna know we there. We offerin' to help, yalls sayin' you doan need the help?"

"Billy!" Mango calls. "We're going."

Billy nods and turns back to Octavian. "Sure we could use the help. But—look, you wanna do extreme things, join the Army. They'll be more than happy to send you to Iraq."

The players snort, mutter, cast pitying glances his way. F*** that. Shee-uh. Hell to the naw naw naw

"We got jobs," Octavian impresses on him, "this here our job, how you think we gonna quit our job go join some nigga's army? Fah like, wha, three years? Break our contract an' all?" Hilarious. They're laughing. Little squeals and snuffling yips escape their mouths.

"Go on," Octavian says, waving Billy away. "Go on now." (XXL.131-134)

These guys don't want to experience real war. They don't want to sign their lives away to the Army, dance to orders from people sitting behind desks, and face real danger. They just want a taste of war. They crave the violent release that made Billy and Bravo famous, but as for the rest of it? No way, José.

Outside the Whataburger booth he spots him, a smallish, twitchy kid with a head too big for his neck, ill dressed for the cold in a thin cotton hoodie and fake falling-apart Reebok, and why the fock would parents spend hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets when their son lacks a proper winter coat? It is infuriating, the psyche of the American consumer. (Everything.2)

When Billy goes looking for a kid to give his ball to, he's clearly looking for someone he considers authentic. To Billy, "real" means anyone who doesn't look like the rest of the kids at the game, who are economically advantaged beyond his wildest dreams. To him, those guys aren't the real Americans. The real American kid is one more like him: a little poor, a little cold, and really disenchanted with the world at a young age.

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)

It'd be a whole lot easier if Billy could just be himself…whoever that is. But is anyone really him- or herself in the world of this novel? Why or why not? What's the deal?

In a moment of—weakness? Delirium?—Billy sought him out after the rally for an emergency counseling session. Something in the invocation had struck Billy as real, and while the rest of the Bravos signed autographs and posed for pictures, Pastor Rick and Billy sat down backstage and talked through Shroom's death.

[…] He felt better for a couple of hours, but as day turned into evening and the hurt seeped in he found there was nothing for his mind to hold on to. What exactly had the pastor said? Billy remembered only the sound of it, a gauzy pambling and tinkling like easy-listening jazz. (Walk.6,8)

Do you think Billy would have been able to remember the advice from someone a little more authentic than Pastor Rick, a guy he later compares to a used-car salesman? Like, was what Pastor Rick told Billy total bull-honky? Or was this a case of Billy needing to unload some emotional baggage, and it was the release rather than the counseling that he found so cathartic?

"Everybody supports the troops," Dime woofs, "support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we're so f***ing PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we're on everybody's tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it." (Money.178)

We have a feeling this is something Dime has kept bottled up for a little while. Sure, he's mad about the movie deal falling through, but this blow-up is about more than that. The Bravos have been spending two weeks traveling across the country to be praised and glad-handed, which is kind of sickening as it is. Then, to have someone talk about how important their story is but put such a paltry price tag on it, is nothing less than insulting. If these people really wanted to support the troops, they'd put their money where their mouths are, instead of just issuing all those empty words.

Why make a movie anyway? It seems pointless to go to all that trouble when the original is floating out there for all to see, easily available online by searching "Al-Ansakar Canal," "Bravo snuff movie," "America's throbbing cock of justice," or any one of a couple of dozen similar phrases that summon forth the Fox News footage, three minutes and forty-three seconds of high-intensity warfare as seen through a stumbling you-are-there point of view, the battle sounds backgrounded by a slur of heavy breathing and the bleeped expletives of the daring camera crew. It's so real it looks fake—too showy, too hyped up and cinematic, a B-movie's defiant or defensive flirtation with the referential limits of kitsch. Would a more polished product serve better, one wonders—throw in some story arc, a good dose of character development, artful lighting, and multiple camera angles, plus a soundtrack to tee up the emotive cues. Nothing looks so real as a fake, apparently, though ever since seeing the footage for himself Billy has puzzled over the fact that it doesn't look like any battle he was ever in. Therefore you have the real that looks fake twice over, the real that looks so real it looks fake and the real that looks nothing like the real and thus fake, so maybe you do need all of Hollywood's craft and guile to bring it back to the real. (Proud.1)

Billy lost us at the end there (wait…so it's real, but it seems fake, but maybe because it seems fake it's really real…uhh…), but this is a great example of how confused Billy is about reality. He was there, man, but the footage doesn't match up with his experience of the battle. So would Hollywood's version be more authentic, or less so? Well, if they go forward with the Hilary Swank thing, we could definitely answer that one for ya.

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