Perhaps you've never given a thought to the hundreds of items with which the modern NFL player is provided in order to do battle, as we say, each fall Sunday. "It takes a team of detail-oriented individuals to work an operation like this," the Dallas Cowboys' equipment manager tells Billy Lynn—the 19-year-old hero of Ben Fountain's seething, brutally funny new novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk—before he takes Billy, an American soldier, on a tour of his airplane hanger of a domain, stuffed with 12 styles of shoulder pads, 15 kinds of face masks, intricately customizable helmets, 22 types of medical tape and enough towels to allow for the use of 700 in one game. In Fountain's hands, what might have been merely absurd becomes obscene, part of a vivisection of America's football-industrial complex and larger culture, not least because Billy has just explained how soldiers like him, who earn as little as $14,800 a year, must often buy online the knives that they carry into war.
It is Thanksgiving Day 2004, and Billy and the rest of his Bravo squad have been brought to Texas Stadium—"an engorged and wart-spattered three-quarter moon"—for the final stop of a Victory Tour that began two weeks earlier, after a Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight with Iraqi insurgents, turning them into national heroes. Well, most of Bravo has been brought there: One has had his legs blown off. Another returned from Baghdad in a flag-draped coffin.
As the single day on which the novel is set unspools, Billy and his seven comrades realize that their value in a culture to which they will likely never have genuine access extends only as far as they can be exploited. Their Victory Tour has taken them, mainly, to electoral swing states. The Cowboys' owner, Norm Oglesby, wants to use their presence to confirm the Cowboys as America's Team. Destiny's Child wants to use them as mute props in their halftime act. The fans who swarm them want to feel O.K. about themselves before turning their attention to the more interesting "warriors" on the field.
All of this has the potential to become heavy-handed, but Fountain rarely allows that. In the end he leaves readers with a fully realized band of brothers whose cultural utility has been used up. They are to return to Iraq, with the knowledge that the only thing worth fighting for, the only thing that's real, is each other. Fountain's readers will never look at an NFL Sunday, or at America, in quite the same way.
THEY SAID IT
"The two things you look for: butt height and sweating."
Packers quarterback, describing his perfect center, a lineman whose snap isn't delivered too high or too low, and who doesn't perspire heavily.
BILL FRAKES (RODGERS)
ALBERT PENA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (CHEERLEADERS)