x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'I want people to feel devastated,' says Ben Fountain of post-9/11 novel

We meet the author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which looks at how US citizens dealt with the post-September 11 years.

The author Ben Fountain.
The author Ben Fountain.

It was, says the novelist Ben Fountain, a typical American scene. The 54-year-old had invited friends and family over to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2004. The football game was on in the background and the halftime show, which had just exploded into life, caught his attention. "It was the most insane thing I have ever seen," he laughs now. "This big mash up of baton twirlers, Destiny's Child, consumerism, patriotism ... and in the middle of it all a bunch of combat soldiers who didn't quite know how to act. It was just this paradigm of American culture. I knew right then that I wanted to record this moment in some way. Because America in those years went seriously off the rails."

The result is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a debut novel about the Iraq War so damning of George W Bush's America it's easy to see why Fountain admits he was in a state of fairly profound depression over the political situation in the years after September 11. "I was coming to the realisation that I didn't understand my country," he says.

And although there are sections where Billy, his young soldier protagonist, describes his division's exploits in Iraq - actions which, via a viral video, have made them the "angelic warriors of America's crusader dreams", this is very much a novel about the United States' "nightmare of superabundance". Set over one long Thanksgiving Day where the recent victories of "Bravo squad" (as they are renamed by Fox TV) are celebrated at a football game and touted to Hollywood executives for a movie adaptation, it's also great fun.

"But it's more than just a satire," argues Fountain. "Yes, on the second page, Billy lets the words of a 'grateful citizen' whirl and tumble around his brain and I write them phonetically. So there's stuff like 'terrRist', 'currj', 'Nina Leven'. It's funny, I know, but there is a serious message there, that these words have been twisted so far that they have very little connection with reality. These patriotic people wanting payback or something ... their words don't really mean anything because they don't know what they're talking about. That's the crux of it. Even though they've seen the violence, horror and destruction of war on the television, it's not real to them."

But the experiences of Bravo squad are very real and, in that sense, Billy Lynn is closer in spirit to the hugely acclaimed HBO series Generation Kill, which chronicled in unadorned fashion the lives of a group of boorish, profane marines simply doing a job, thousands of miles from home, in a war zone. It's just that the job involved killing people for a nebulous cause.

"I do want people to feel devastated when they read this," admits Fountain. "Billy is quite unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. But if he is killed, we have lost something wonderful - which is the case with every soldier killed in war. There's an entire world in each one of those people, so much potential good that if we lose one, we all lose something important."

Fountain's political agenda, then, seems clear. Right at the end of the book, Billy wonders whether there will be "a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens". And the triumph of the book is that the politics develops through these convincingly raucous and realistic characters rather than the authorial voice itself.

"That was the aim," agrees Fountain. "When you first approach any war narrative, of course you ask what these soldiers are doing. But half a second after that, you can't help but ask why they're in Iraq or Afghanistan, why they're being put through these experiences, is it absolutely necessary?"

And though it has taken eight years for Fountain to explore such issues in a novel - in which time he published a collection of short stories and none other than Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker wrote an essay about his late-blooming talent - the distance from the original events is a virtue.

"From a vague idea about what I wanted this book to be back in 2004, I feel I've come reasonably close to the sound and intensity of that initial impulse," he says. "But, most of all, I want to believe that there is still a basic decency in American life and culture. I hope that comes through in Billy and his buddies."

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Canongate) is out now.


Billy the kid

Ben Fountain introduces his protagonist hero, Private Billy Lynn, a teenager who "did not seek the heroic deed, the deed came for him ... and what he dreads is that the deed will seek him out again".

"Billy is 19 years old, poorly educated but still pretty smart. The war has made him alert and alive to the world around him - people are telling him that they appreciate his service and how much they respect him, and he feels that they really mean it while they're saying it, or they mean something at least.

"But he also realises that all these people calling him a hero need something from him, too, and it troubles him deeply. So the challenge was presenting the book through his eyes, capturing some of the essence of how the military behaves and jokes, without limiting myself to his stream of consciousness.

"Sometimes that might mean he's more articulate than might seem realistic, but I do think that if you sat Billy down at any one moment and walked him through exactly what he's thinking and feeling, it would match what's on the page. It's about capturing a character: I want the reader to feel that Billy has so much to live for."