Aiming for the heavens

Leo Robson reviews Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Bernard Malamud’s first novel, published in 1952, concerns a man who embarks on a baseball career in his mid-30s. “Oh my eight-foot uncle,” sighs a coach, when he sees Roy Hobbs approaching, “what have we got here, the Salvation Army band?” But Roy assures him that the only music he makes “is with my bat” and before long Roy’s bat has made good on his promise: “A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky”.

In calling his novel The Natural, Malamud, 35 when he started work on the book, sought to correct a misapprehension about those who start, as the coach puts it, “way late”: from a rear-view perspective, everyone who achieves greatness was destined to do so. American literature is as happy telling tales of tenacious self-belief as of breezy self-assurance, and American literary history is as happy, or almost as happy, telling tales of Malamud as of Norman Mailer, of Annie Proulx as of S E Hinton. But while age doesn’t matter, temperament does and whether the route to the mound was circuitous or direct, first-time novelists – or as Time used to call them, First Novelists – are expected to aim for the heavens.

Ben Fountain and Austin Ratner both started writing fiction having travelled a fair distance along a straight career path – Fountain as a lawyer, Ratner as a physician. Of the two, Fountain, who is 54, is much the more commanding, one of the fruits of his long apprenticeship (he quit his job in 1988; a book of stories came out in 2004) being a capacity to make it look easy.

Not long after setting up as a writer, Fountain realised that he didn’t know how to describe things and went “to school” on visual and architectural dictionaries. And if he didn’t exactly prove to be what Americans call “a quick study”, then his straggling has something of the tortoise about it:

It was a mellow fall morning, the blue sky-dome stretched high and tight with that sweet winesap smell in the air, the honeyed, vaguely melancholy scent of vegetable ferment and illegal leaf burns.

The transect of sky through the open dome is the color and texture of rumbled pewter, an ominous boil of bruised sepias and ditchwater grays that foretells all kinds of weather-related misery.

It’s raining, sort of, the air pilled with a dangling, brokedick mizzle into which umbrellas are constantly being raised and lowered, up, down, up, down, like a leisurely game of whack-a-mole.

But Fountain’s evocations of mellowness and misery and mizzle, the speed and wit of his pen-portraits (a pastor is “a used-car salesman in sheep’s clothing”), his inventive deployment of commas and participles and his ability to pull off sentences ranging in length from one word to 120, count for only so much, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for all its pleasurable jolts, is not a fully successful novel.

Fountain’s central decision has been to accord an unusual degree of wisdom to his 19-year-old hero, a Texan soldier on a fortnight's leave to publicise a crucial victory over Iraqi insurgents; and then to set him down, for the final day of the tour, in a Texas football stadium filled with reflexively pro-war journalists, businessmen and football fans who fail to recognise either the horrors of American imperialism or the narrow horizons of American idealism – a formula whose numbing constancy even Fountain’s prose, with its jostling of tones and registers, struggles to alleviate.

A football stadium in a state where support for the Iraq war was more sensitively phrased, or where opposition to the war risked slighting military efforts or casualty, would have made for a less lopsided dynamic – as would Billy paying a visit to Texas Stadium at a slightly earlier stage of development. Repeatedly, across the novel, we are informed that Billy’s breakthrough is a recent phenomenon. It is “only lately” that Billy has come to recognise “his state-sanctioned ignorance” as a “huge criminal act”; “lately” that he has felt the “definite need for something more” than blowjobs “in his life”; “lately” that he has decided that “prolonged eye contact from a fellow male” might not represent sexual desire, “a conclusion that required no small broadening of his view of human nature”; “lately” that he has been suffering “random seizures of futility and pointlessness that make him wonder why it matters how he lives his life”.

The catalysts for Billy’s “farther perspective” emerge with greater clarity than the lineaments of the perspective itself. Having wondered whether his “deeper sensitivities and yearnings” have been inspired by the war or by ageing, Billy later decides it’s a fusion of the two, the “way Iraq aged you in dog years”; but when Billy experiences the feeling that he has “more to lose” shipping out to Iraq the second time than he did the first, the reader has no choice but to follow him in wondering “what that was”.

On the whole, Billy provides too frictionless a vehicle for Fountain’s disappointment. Third-person narration ascribes to Billy reflections on the invention of new American football rules (“an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of ‘play’”), on the “soul-squashing homogeneity” of American civic centres and hotel rooms, auditoriums and banquet halls. Billy notices the sports fans at the Dallas Cowboys game “fogged in by the general bewilderment of life. Oh Americans. Oh my people.” In taking up the cause not of an average grunt but a reformed grunt, Fountain displays a reverence for the virtues of the examined life that necessarily withholds full sympathy from the other soldiers in Billy’s squad, as well as virtually every other character in the novel.

Not long into the novel, a film producer interested in Billy’s story explains that a studio won’t commit until a star does, and that a star won’t commit until a studio does – a paradox that the narrator calls “so completely circular in the modern way”. But comparisons between First Novelist Ben Fountain and First Novelist Joseph Heller are misplaced, partly because,

in terms of breaking with the orthodoxy, the equivalent today of writing an anti-war novel 50 years ago would be to write a pro-war novel, and partly because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an annunciation of promise rather than a fulfilment of it.

Austin Ratner, who shares a surname with Ben Fountain’s film producer, took a slower run-up, or a shorter walk, to The Jump Artist but his is nevertheless a tale of passionate commitment, with years bowed over cadavers and medical textbooks being suddenly traded for a desire to write the story of the Latvian portrait photographer, Philippe Halsman, before his arrival in the US in 1938 – a project that demanded much further study, albeit of a different kind.

Like Fountain, Ratner takes delight in the possibilities, denied in more narrowly empirical disciplines, afforded by figurative language: a thumb twitches “like a peristaltic worm”, a smile is “like a little electric current”. Otherwise, though, he seems paralysed by risk aversion. First-time novelists often make use of a classic model – for Malamud, it was the legend of King Arthur – but Ratner has called on every imaginable means of support, most obviously the epigraphs that come at the start of each chapter, some of which take the form of quotations that he was unable to incorporate into his narrative, others of which offer fat-handed pointers to literary analogues, such as the quotation, long after Philip has been acquitted of a crime he didn’t commit, of the whole first sentence of Kafka’s The Trial.

As fashioned by Ratner, in a flat, grey prose that only comes alive during moments of extreme terseness, Halsman is an inert figure, permanently scared or confused, incapable of a vengeful or worldly thought, penned in by his creator’s knowledge of subsequent historical developments (“Nothing can happen now, Philippe . . . You’re in France. It’s 1932”). Ratner’s hesitancy is most obvious in the extent to which he has, in his own words, “depended on significant research”. But diligence in relation to “the source material” is more likely to inspire gratitude from the keepers of the Halsman Archive than readers of The Jump Artist, not least because Halsman’s early years in Europe involved two difficulties, being falsely accused of his father’s murder in the anti-Semitic Austria of the late 1920s and being an inhabitant of Paris in the late 1930s, from both of which we know he escaped.

Ratner is within his rights to use an author’s note to inform the reader that the following pages are “based on a true story”. But he is communicating nothing so much as a fear of the reader’s unguided response when he explains, in his boastful-apologetic way, that he has been “inspired” by André Gide’s statement that “fiction is history which might have taken place, and history is fiction which has taken place” (more relevant, surely, to a book that doesn’t mix the two); or that his “goal was to use the techniques of fiction to imagine subjectively what Halsman suffered and overcame”; or that his book is “not a biography so much as an artistic tribute . . . more like a portrait or a sculpture” (Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, in particular).

The Jump Artist was awarded the inaugural Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, though it would be hard to imagine a jury rewarding Ratner for anything other than scrupulousness. An indication of the reading experience on offer comes as early as the book’s first sentence, which is given over to claims about the events that form the basis of the narrative (“an early chapter of the Holocaust . . . now mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world”).

But just as a description of Innsbruck windowsills lined with “empty flower boxes” carries no greater force by virtue of being authentic, so Halsman’s story loses its rarity and distinction when transplanted into a literary form that imposes standards substantially higher than those of journalism and historiography for what constitutes the peculiar, improbable or strange.