When Billy Lynn was 18 years old, he trashed his sister’s ex-fiancé’s car with a crowbar and then chased after said ex-fiancé, waving the crowbar at him. The only way for Billy Lynn to stay out of jail was to agree to sign up to the US army. And so he did, knowing that it meant he would probably be sent to Iraq.
We meet Billy a year later, along with the rest of Bravo unit – Mango, Crack, Dime, Day, A-bort, Sykes and Lodis – at the Superbowl on the last day of their Victory Tour. While out in Iraq there was a surprise attack by insurgents. When two of their own went down, first Billy, and then the rest of the unit, went in, fighting to get to their men only for them to die in their arms. More importantly though, they were followed by a Fox News crew who filmed them killing several of the insurgents and now they’re national heroes.
As the game plays out (mostly) in the background, Billy and the unit are greeted by members of the American public who want to thank them for their ‘currj’ and ‘sacrifice’ in fighting the ‘evil terrRist’ and bringing justice for ‘nina leven’ (read it in a Southern American accent). Many of them, including the media and the football players, want to know what it’s like to be in a combat situation. Billy replies in ‘nonsequential mumblings’ while continually returning to the battle within himself that he’s ‘a baby-killer’.
In one of the best set pieces in the book, the unit are approached by an oil magnate who tells them that he can ‘imagine how hard it is…to be exposed to that level of violence’. Dime responds with:
“We like violence, we like going lethal! I mean, isn’t that what you’re paying us for? To take the fight to America’s enemies and send them straight to hell?”…Dime gestured around the table…”this is the most murdering bunch of psychopaths you’ll ever see.”
Fountain exposes the chasm between what’s happening in Iraq – young men being given death sentences by their own government – and the average American’s understanding of it – that they’re ‘cap[ing] some Muslim freaks’, as well as the gross inequality between the pampered football players/the club’s investors and the men they’re calling heroes.
What’s so good about the novel is that it never becomes preachy. When Dime and Billy are taken on a tour of the Dallas Cowboy’s equipment room, they marvel at the amount of protection available for the players while we’re left to fill in the gaps for ourselves: to compare this equipment to that available to Bravo unit and the rest of the troops. There are also two sub-plots involving a movie deal for the unit in which Hilary Swank might play Billy/Dime and a fleeting love affair between Billy and one of the Cowboy’s cheerleaders. Preventing these threads from potential cheesiness is the knowledge that hangs over the whole of the book: that at the end of the day, Bravo unit will return to Iraq and probable death.
This is a clever, funny, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying novel that should be required reading. I look forward to seeing the photographs of Obama and Cameron clutching copies as they relax by the poolside.
Any Cop?: The best novel I’ve read (so far) this year. Unmissable.