Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Separateness

By Ben Fountain

Separateness

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)

We actually kind of wish he was able to say those things to the TV reporter. One of the things that hurts the country, at least in Billy's perspective, is that Americans are so removed from the reality of war. (And possibly the reality of everything.) He's forced to be two different people, because to tell the truth would be too much for most people.

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die. (Human Response.55)

This is a great example of how Billy views things from an us-versus-them perspective. In this case, Us is Army, and Them is Everyone Else. Billy can no longer relate to his fellow Americans, because they have no idea what he's done in the name of preserving all that they value. They probably don't even want to know.

He wants to know what happened that day in Ramallah. Did the major lose men that day? Friends? Did he watch them die? Billy feels a terrible need to connect, heart to heart, man to man, warrior to warrior, he craves that rough and necessary wisdom and yet can barely manage small talk with officers, much less crack the code of the major's vacancy to access something so personal and real. How is he supposed to break the ice? YO MAJOR, CHECK IT OUT, THEY GOT HEINEKENS ON TAP! (Human Response.70)

So, not only does Billy feel isolated from American civilians, but he also feels like he can't even talk to his fellow soldiers. Sure, Major Mac is hard to approach even on a good day due to his deafness and otherworldly behavior, but you'd think it wouldn't be so hard to have a serious talk with someone who's also been "there."

Billy gets how s***ty the place makes him feel, the quick sink of depression in his gut, but he thinks it's just an allergic reaction to rich people. He clenched the moment he walked in and felt the money vibe. He wanted to back right out of there. He wanted to punch someone. Rich people make him nervous for no particular reason, they just do, and standing by the hostess station in his kudzu-green class A's Billy felt about as belonging here as a wino pissing his pants. (Virtue.3)

There's actually a name for this, folks: It's plutophobia. No, it has nothing to do with Disney…it's the fear of rich people. We can, uhh, relate to this, actually. With all that power and influence, rich people can be really scary sometimes.

Billy has made sure to sit next to Dime and Albert, because whatever they say he means to hear it. He knows he doesn't know enough. He doesn't know anything, basically, at least nothing worth knowing, the measure of worth at this point in his life being knowledge that quiets the mind and calms the soul. (Virtue.10)

Billy sees people like Dime and Albert—and especially Shroom—as a different class of people entirely. Their philosophical viewpoints and mature, pragmatic worldview make them seem almost supernatural to the kid from Stovall, Texas. So by sitting next to them, he's hoping to be able to someday assimilate into their class.

"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 judgement on the validity of your experience is just wrong, it goes beyond wrong, it's ethics porn. They aren't capable of fathoming what you guys did." (Virtue.32)

Sing it, Albert. The American people, and especially the rich people who are twice removed from reality by virtue of all that money, really have no frame of reference to understand anything the Bravo boys have done. They'll sure blather about it to make themselves look good, though.

Extramarital sex wasn't the terrible family secret, neither the screwing around nor the evidence thereof, the surfacing after his stroke of the alleged teenage daughter and the lawsuit for acknowledgement of paternity and child support. A sorry business to be sure, but no secret, no tiptoeing around the smirch to family honor. But that other shame they never spoke of, thrilling though it was. You felt bad about feeling good, was what the shame amounted to. Ray wouldn't—couldn't?—talk: ! The famous silver tongue was finally stilled, and what a relief and secret joy that was for everyone. (Bully.11)

Don't you wish that his family could bond over their shared joy, instead of harboring shameful secrets? Billy's family could really use something to connect over to overcome their feelings of isolation, and their common relief about Ray's silence could be just the thing.

Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one to the other. (Everything.69)

Here in America, "the war" is a vague concept that the American public can talk about in absolutes—because in this situation, ignorance is bliss. Billy, on the other hand, knows the war and its gruesome reality, and he feels like he has to be careful not to pop the safe little bubble of those back home.

America has never made so much sense to him as at this moment. It is an exceptional country, no doubt. As with the successful launch of a NASA space probe, he can take pleasure in the achievement, even feel some measure of participatory pride, all the while understanding that the mission has absolutely nothing to do with him. (Everything.236)

Wait, why doesn't it have to do with him? Billy is American. He lives in America. He's fighting for his country. Why does he think that America's success has nothing to do with him? Maybe it's because he realizes at this point that a lot of these wonderful achievements have been paid for in questionable ways—like by going to war, for example—and as someone who can sort of see through all of that, Billy no longer feels like he is a part of it.

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)

Deep Thoughts with Billy Lynn, everybody. Basically, what Billy's saying that the reality Americans are living in is an illusion. More than that, it's all illusion that Americans don't want to give up. Billy knows it's an illusion, so in a way, he feels he's now become the enemy of these people. What do you think—is he right?