Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Society & Class

By Ben Fountain

Society & Class

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)

Ouch. Finding out that your place in the world is the equivalent of something smaller than a speck of dust is way harsh, Tai. But in reality, is Billy that insubstantial? Is money the determining factor for a human being's value? For some people, it certainly seems to be, but that doesn't mean those people are right.

Billy is thinking if you took every person he's ever known in his life and added up the sum total of their wealth, this presumably grand number would still pale in comparison to the stupendous net worth of Norman Oglesby, or "Norm" as he's known to the media, friends, colleagues, legions of Cowboys fans, and the even mightier legions of Cowboys haters who for whatever reason—his smug, kiss-my-ass arrogance, say, or his flaunting of the whole America's Team shtick, or his willingness to whore out the Cowboys brand to everything from toasters to tulip bulbs—despise the man's guts even as they're forced to admit his genius for turning serious bucks. Norm. The Normster. Nahm. (All Americans.1)

As Billy points out, it's strange that Americans will respect someone with tons of money, just for having tons of money, even if he or she is clearly a bad person. There may be something in this of the Calvinist idea that money is a sign of God's favor, so the more money you have, the better you are. But most people just kind of accept this idea without really knowing where it comes from; there's just kind of this myth that money should get you respect. Billy is starting to see through all of that.

But they are different, these Americans. They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living—gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren't quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style of, say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter. It's not that he's jealous so much as profoundly terrified. Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that's how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires. Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point, and at this moment he feels so sorry for himself that he could break right down and cry. (All Americans.30)

Rich people do seem to live in some kind of #blessed alternate reality. Think of those reality shows about people losing their minds over a botched facelift, or think of the fact that almost every woman on those shows has incredibly skinny upper arms. (Do rich people not have to lift things?) On the other hand, there's poor Billy. Literally. He's about to go back to a place where you have to poop in a hole and worry about whether or not someone's going to blow you up while you're at it. Those rich people have no idea what fear and hardship mean.

Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants. (XXL.2)

It's true, with maybe the exception of Cold War-era Russia. (Have you seen some of these guys?) Most countries would give just about anything to have the food supply we enjoy here in America.

Billy notes how closely his fellow guests listen to Norm's speech, how keen their facial expressions of faith and resolve. The men look wise, relaxed, in great shape for middle age, possessed of the sure and liquid style that comes of long success. They have good hair. They've wrinkled well. The women are slim and toned and internationally tan, their makeup sealed with a Teflon coat of cool. Billy tries to imagine the formula of birth, money, schools, and social savvy that lifts people to such a rarefied station in life. Whatever it is, they make it look easy just standing there, just by being who they are in this special place, being warm and safe and clean, being guests of Norm. (Everything.25)

There's something about never having to worry about where your next meal is coming from, or how you're going to pay the bills, that makes you just look well off. It is easy for them, Billy. You're not imagining things.

"Why should I watch myself?"

"Because in case you haven't noticed this is a highly partisan country we live in, Billy. Those guys are smart, they know who the enemy is. They aren't fooled by a couple of bulls*** war medals."

Billy glances at his chest, considering his medals in this possibly sinister light.

"I'm not the enemy."

"Oh hooooo, you don't think? They decide, not you. They're the deciders when it comes to who's a real American, dude." (Everything.106-110)

This is probably the most sinister thing Dime says in the whole book. The rich guys are the enemy, because they'll be the ones who send Billy—a poor kid—to places like Iraq to die. And for what? That's debatable. It's hard being a pawn.

"Billy, all those mofos ever do is lie. You think if they halfway told the truth we'd even be in a f***ing war? You know what I think, I think we don't deserve to have you guys die for us. No country that lets its leaders lie like that deserves a single soldier to die for it." (Sanity.73)

Can you blame Billy's family, in particular Kathryn, for feeling like someone must be out to get them? The novel suggests that people really are out to get them, in the sense that no one with money or power actually cares about people like Billy's family. If they want something and have to go to war to get it, they'll say anything to send people like Billy off to fight and die for it. They'll even lie.

"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)

The Army has done some serious indoctrinating if Crack is willing to good-naturedly compare himself to a dog, a mule, and a cockroach. Have you ever seen Full Metal Jacket? That stuff can be scary.

"Sergeant, are you okay?"

Dime snaps out of it. "I was just thinking, rich people are crazy." He turns to Billy and adds, with feeling: "Don't ever forget that."

"Roger, Sergeant." (Vampires.79-81)

Dime talks about rich people as if they're a different species. Perhaps he's also considering the possibility that maybe they're rich because they're crazy? Like, the kind of person you have to be in order to get mega-rich is…a messed-up person? #normispsycho

A group of five or six guys piles into row 6, friends of the young marrieds it seems; they arrive with much laughing and razzing and immediately pull out pint bottles of Wild Turkey. "Bro!" one of them caws at Lodis. "Get some stitches in them dizzles!" They have the clean-cut, mainstream, Anglo looks that Billy imagines must be soothing to bosses and clients, suitable for careers in banking, business, law, wherever it is the money lives. (Proud.49)

Looks like the "victory tour" has been one long, uncomfortable wake-up call for Billy, as if America was determined to remind him that he's just a grunt. A hero grunt, sure—but a grunt just the same. He could never live up to these clean-cut dudes who ooze wealth.