Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rilke, Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn and Other Men’s Wars

I’m a sensitive guy. Some people who know me wouldn’t agree with that. I am, however. When I praise a book and then have a friend tell me he thought it was not a very good read, I cringe and wonder about myself. I recoil and wonder if I need to rethink things.
by Charlie Leck

In my Rilke readings (A Year with Rilke), I just finished reading the Spanish Trilogy (III) that comes from Uncollected Poems. I was so moved by them. I recall that a friend, and reader of my blog wrote, saying he did not like Rilke at all. When I finished reading these three wonderful works, beautiful even in their translation, I wondered how it is possible not to like his gentle poems. The third of the trilogy is printed below.
When I re-enter, alone, the city’s crush
and its chaos of noise
and the fury of traffic surrounds me,
may I, above that hammering confusion,
remember sky and the mountain slopes
where the herds are still descending homeward.
May my courage be like those rocks
and the shepherd’s daylong work seem possible to me –
the way he drifts and darkens, and with a well-aimed stone
hems in his flock where it unravels.
With slow and steady strides, his posture is pensive
and, as he stands there, noble. Even now a god might
secretly slip into this form and not be diminished.
In turn, he lingers and moves on like the day itself,
and cloud shadows pass through him, as though all of space
were thinking slow thoughts for him.
I shouldn’t be so disturbed that a good friend doesn’t like something I find so remarkable, but here I am this morning, asking how anyone could not like something so beautiful.
The same friend questioned my taste in reading because I so liked Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Again, I wonder how, when there is such meaning in beautiful writing like this (for which, by the way, the author won numerous literary awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award), that this friend cannot avidly applaud its author, Ben Fountain. The following excerpt quotation comes after Billy Lynn and his fellow hero-soldiers, all of whom have become quite famous, are shown on the big video-tron screen at a Dallas Cowboy NFL football game.
“No one spits, no one calls him baby-killer. On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same. There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year. For these adult, affluent people he is mere petty cash in their personal accounting, yet they lose it when they enter his personal space. They tremble. They breathe in fitful, stinky huffs. Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio. It’s been hard times in America – how did we get this way? So scared all the time, and so shamed at being scared through the long dark nights of worry and dread, days of rumor and doubt, years of drift and slowly ossifying angst. You listened and read and watched and it was just, so obvious, what had to be done, a mental tic of a mantra that became second nature the war dragged on. Why don’t they just … Send in more troops. Make the troops fight harder. Pile on the armor and go in blazing, full-frontal smackdown and no prisoners. And by the way, shouldn’t the Iraqis be thanking us? Somebody needs to tell them that, would you tell them that, please? Or maybe they’d like their dictator back. Failing that, drop bombs. More and bigger bombs. Show these persons the wrath of God and pound them into compliance, and if that doesn’t work then bring out the nukes and take it all the way down, wipe it clean, reload with fresh hearts and minds, a nuclear slum clearance of the country’s soul”
I remember when I first read that long paragraph. I had to stop and lower the book into my lap and tremble just a mite and give thanks that I'd never had to go to war. Coward! Draft-dodging bastard! Commie shit!
“…a slum clearance of the country’s soul.”
Oh, my! Had I ever heard it spoken or written so well? Did the readers of the book understand? Who fights – really fights, I mean – America’s wars?
“…a slum clearance of the country’s soul.”
“No man (or woman),” I thought aloud, talking to myself, “should be sent to war unless we, as a nation, are absolutely certain there is no possible alternative. The motives for war, in my adult lifetime, have all been too unclear and fragile to support such actions.”
It isn’t the only time I shuddered while reading this book. It isn’t the only time I paused and thought long and hard. The men of Bravo are Fountain’s way of describing the massive innocence of boys at war – boys called to sacrifice themselves because the grown men who make the decisions of war don’t need to.
How do I rate Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the book? A strong A and nearly an A+ -- and a book that America needs to read and digest (but won’t of course).
Not everyone has to like the book. I know that! For some, it is more than one wants to read. I remember having the same feeling – asking myself why I was reading this – when I devoured Tim O’Brien’s extraordinary books, In the Lake of the Woods, and his tour de force, The Things They Carried.

I shouldn’t be so sensitive about criticism. It’s a new resolution as my time winds down. Word came today that a dear friend and classmate, from high school days, has died. A bit of criticism about my reading tastes is not so vital. I hope you are resting among the stars, Mike.

Read, if you dare, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [Harper Collins, New York, 2012].

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1 comment:

  1. We can't expect our friends to have the same taste in books that we do. Some of us love the written word so much we can't understand those who push it away. Their loss. We'll indulge whenever we can.

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