Billy is a young, white, rural Texan soldier who found himself in a deadly firefight in Iraq. He numbly and heroically tried and failed to rescue a friend and mentor -- this was caught on video and broadcast all over the States. The War (Defense) Department and the U.S. Army thought it would make for good publicity to take his squad on tour, including a White House visit and concluding with an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The experience is mind-bending, barely understandable, and disturbing for these grunts who are haunted by what they've lived and what they know they are going back to as soon as stateside promoters are done with them.
No commentary of mine is going to catch the richness of this story, but I can share some of what I thought were high points.
At the stadium, the squad is feted in the owner's box by "Norm," clearly inspired by the Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones. Dallas haters will love that characterization. Our hero Billy just aims to imbibe as much free booze as he can and avoid offending the exotic humans who want to lionize him.
Billy's squad leader tries to ensure he doesn't get confused about who matters.
Finally the squad escapes their captivity as Norm's latest exhibits and the football begins. They are not drawn into the game, in any case a snoozer in which Dallas is stomped.
I have never seen a pro game in a stadium, but I've been inside our local gridiron palace, Levi's Stadium, the future home of Super Bowl 50. I can well imagine that the experience is mostly discomfort, beer lines, noise, and the big screens.
This book might (should?) make women uncomfortable. It recounts a confused adolescent male's unconsidered and unreconstructed hormonal responses to some crazy scenes. His energy is raw. But it is worth noting that women are some of the saner civilians Billy meets.
As Billy reports to the squad vans, about to be shipped back to combat, he summarizes for himself what he has learned from the squad's home front odyssey:
The National Book Award selection panel and the National Book Critics Circle thought this novel worthy of acclaim. I do too. We innocents who are in charge need as visceral an experience as we can find of what we are doing to soldiers in our obsessive quest for illusory security.