Angry and funny. These were the two words used most frequently in our recent “Literature and Medicine” discussion group to describe Ben Fountain’s excellent novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The humor and outrage come in equal parts as Fountain unleashes his satirical pen on a Thanksgiving Day pro football game where the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and Destiny’s Child are thrown together with a squad of shell-shocked Iraq combat vets as the event’s over-the-top halftime show.
Fountain is an amazingly talented writer, showing a deeply hypocritical America through the eyes of a young soldier, Billy Lynn, and tossing off sizzling sentences like this: “For the past two weeks [Billy’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 bitch.”
I so admire Fountain’s ear for dialogue, his juicy mixing of the profane and the philosophical, and his steady eye on American culture in wartime. The members of our discussion group who had either served in the military or had family members who had expressed appreciation for his attention to the absurdity of their experiences. What I keep going back to are those two words—angry and funny—and my feeling that the genius of Fountain’s novel is its fusion of these two, so that, as readers, we never laugh without having our conscience nudged. Or as Peter Ustinov said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”